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Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Egypt: 360 degree tours

A new mobile application is offering virtual reality tours of Egypt’s tourist sites

Bassem Aly , Thursday 7 May 2020
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“Around Egypt”, a virtual reality (VR) mobile application that allows people to explore top sightseeing spots in Egypt through 360 degree tours, has recently been launched and is available at https://aroundegypt.app/

The application, jointly created by the media agency Egypt VR and the software development house [34]ML, came third in the list of trending travel application on the App Store. Although the app kicked off its marketing campaign only a month ago, its Facebook page had reached 349,000 users by 24 April, and one of the tours had reached 24 million views.

Both companies started working on the app in 2018, launching a beta version one year later. The latest version was issued this month and features more than 30 different virtual reality tours of sites around Egypt from Cairo to Aswan. They include national parks, beaches, religious sites, Pharaonic temples and other places.

Ahmed Saafan, business lead at [34]ML, said his company owned two-thirds of the application, while the remaining third belonged to Egypt VR. “We wanted to show off the beauty of Egypt to both Egyptians and foreigners. Many of the sites we show on the app are not even known to Egyptians themselves,” Saafan said.

Ashraf Moura, operations lead at [34]ML, told Al-Ahram Weekly that they were looking to add more features and languages to the app to increase the customer base and reach more tourists. This month, they will add a new feature which allows those who download the application, which is available on App Store, Google Play Store and Oculus Store, to see 360 videos.

 Saafan pointed out that they still had not decided how to generate profits through the app. “We want the app to remain free,” he said, adding that they were negotiating with banks for funds and with foreign embassies in Cairo to see whether they would be interested in translating the content into their own languages.

But, for now, he said, they have “zero sponsors”.

 Saafan noted that ahead of the current coronavirus pandemic they had worked continuously on “fine-tuning the app”, deciding to accelerate the process when the crisis began. He said that the tourism sector would likely continue to suffer for the next few years, and so the app was “offering a tool for the country and people who love technology and want to see the touristic sites in Egypt”.

Saafan argued that the 360 degree content has higher levels of interactivity than normal footage, and people are more likely to watch it, book trips, and become curious about knowing more about the places they see. “Interactive content makes you feel you are in the actual spot,” he said.

A similar step has been taken by the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry under the slogan of “Experience Egypt from Home. Stay Home. Stay Safe.” The ministry shares tours on its social media pages of museums and archaeological sites.

But Saafan thinks “Around Egypt” has the edge because it is a mobile application. Apps are more “user-friendly”, he said, “and international statistics have shown that consumers are 80 per cent more likely to check content that is available through such media.”

In addition to the “better experience”, Saafan said that “Around Egypt” had a variety of content to show people who were not only interested in archaeology.

He wants the application to contribute to the recovery of tourism in Egypt, which is currently suffering because of the coronavirus pandemic. This has hit the tourism sector, which is losing billions of pounds each month due to the curfew and social-distancing measures being adopted to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Saafan is not worried that the app might keep tourists away from the actual sites, as “nothing compares to real experiences”, he said. Photographs of the Pyramids have been available online for years, yet people continue to visit them, he added.

Moreover, 360 tours do not present footage of everything inside a site. “You can walk for hours inside a Pharaonic temple,” he noted.

For Mohamed Atef, immersive media content lead at Egypt VR and the company’s founder, not everyone has the luxury of taking a 4x4 vehicle into the desert to see a cave or natural reserve.

     His company is responsible for providing the content, and for more than seven years Atef himself has been taking photographs of touristic attractions in Egypt, including Pharaonic, Islamic, and “exotic” sites.

 He added that a large portion of the content he has developed has yet to be posted on the application. “Coronavirus was like God’s gift to us. People are staying at home, and they need something to watch, and VR has become very important these days. In the past, people did not even know what VR meant,” he said.

 “Now we have a golden opportunity to get more footage as the touristic sites are empty. We just need to get approvals for this to happen,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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