That Amazon wants to take over the world is hardly disputed. The company sells us books, phones, gifts, music, chocolate, booze, films, toys, Alexa and loo roll. It sells cars in the US. It’s developing a grocery service here. It stores data for media companies that spend many column inches slagging it off. What it doesn’t own outright it embraces – and takes a cut.
In the US, it has just launched Amazon Explore, a platform for taking virtual holidays. Six regions are offered (the three Americas, Europe, Australia and Asia) through tours, lessons and “experiences”, from cooking a spag bol with a chef from Bologna, to a virtual walking tour of Hong Kong, to shopping in Tokyo’s Asakusa district – with links to buy stuff as you “walk”. Amazon says 200 experiences at 20 locations are on offer, with more being added all the time.
Prices typically range from $49 (£37) to $140 (£106), though I found a geography class for $19 (£14) in Argentina and a shopping trip in Peru for $20 (£15); local currency rates and inflationary pressures make a dollar more useful in some countries.
Amazon says the Explore service “puts the world at your fingertips by offering virtual experiences that are livestreamed to you at home.
“If want to try or learn something new, take a virtual lesson and discover new arts and crafts, cooking techniques and recipes, and languages. Additionally, many experiences let you purchase artisan-made products, allowing you to support small businesses and shop for fashion accessories, souvenirs, artwork, and other one-of-a-kind items.
“Whatever goods you buy, your host will ship them directly to your home. What are you waiting for? Learn, shop, and discover new places with Amazon Explore.”
I was cynical about a virtual trip abroad (tax-shy Amazon already takes a worrying wedge off me for all sorts) but, rather than deliver a diatribe, I logged on to trial run a tour. But the “beta” service is available “by invitation to customers in the US only”.
I considered trying to smuggle myself in using a VPN, but it turned out easier to find out who was delivering the goods and make contact with a tour firm. After a few minutes I’d booked a 45-minute empanada cooking class with Signature Tours in Buenos Aires ($29) and had a Zoom scheduled for 4pm. As dusk swooped down on South Devon, I clicked my way to early afternoon in Palermo and the smiling face of Daniela Elias, 31, my guide and cook.
I have to admit to vested interests here. I love empanadas and a few recent efforts have resulted in only partial success. I used Jus-Rol, because I’m not a Bake Off-level talent. They exploded. I find crimping challenging.
I lived in Buenos Aires and travel there frequently. I fancied learning to make something I miss. Spending some time in the city – albeit via Zoom – in the first year since 1991 when I haven’t travelled to South America, appealed a lot.
Daniela was brilliant. She was vivacious, had superb English, and, in Blue Peter fashion, had pre-prepared several stages beforehand. She talked me through the history of the humble empanada, the ingredients, the chopping and cooking. She showed me how to master the crimps.
I didn’t do the lesson in the kitchen, but you could, and make them alongside her.
“It’s important not to overstuff them,” she explained, deftly spooning in ground beef lightly fried with cumin, paprika, onions, potato and a dash of malbec.
“I’ll show you a trick my grandma showed me with the dough.” She plunged a finger in to demonstrate the consistency. This was bespoke TV. Better than a cookbook. Better than Nigella.
“The idea is to allow people to travel with their senses. We didn’t do many lessons like this face to face, as we had lots of options before Covid that were out in the street.
“A lot of Americans seem to buy this tour for people’s birthday.”
What a nice idea, in this glum and grounded year, to send a friend to Buenos Aires on their birthday.
“I wish I could send them to you,” she said, holding a plate of finished empanadas up to the camera. My screen filled with digital pasties. Not being able to eat at the end was a bit sad.
To compensate, she showed me the leafy view from her balcony. Her boyfriend waved goodbye from behind the camera. The sun was shining.
How was my experience different from any other on offer on the net? Well, because of who is providing the connection. Because of Amazon.
Browsing through the experiences on offer, it’s clear this is a quality platform. Virtual tours on offer include a beautiful artist’s house in Lima that I know, a wildcats rescue centre in Costa Rica, a Zen tour of Kyoto. These are great ideas, not that surprising as the site was developed over a year go – long before the pandemic – and experiences were tested on Amazon employees before being sold to the public. If Daniela was at the top end of typical, then the presenters have been carefully vetted, too.
The website is cleanly and clearly designed. If a product doesn’t live up to expectations you can complain to the vendor – i.e. Amazon. You can go all over the world on one page. You can pay via a secure system.
“Amazon Explore has helped us a lot through quarantine,” says Eduardo Tuite, director at Signature Tours.
“We’ve had the chance to show our products, culture and history, but in a virtual manner.
“Many people who thought about travelling but couldn’t due to lockdown have migrated to the virtual experiences. We get a lot of customers.”
Will virtual tourism challenge the real thing? We’ll, I’d like to say, “No way!” I like people. I like to travel in person. I enjoy guiding tours myself.
But a splash of virtual sunshine in winter, and a useful and fun cooking class, and a chat to someone somewhere else, are all wondrous in their own way.
Europeans love to travel. They value life-long learning. They prep for trips with books and food and language courses. It’s only rational that Amazon should roll out Explore here soon.
What should tour firms and travel agents do? What should travellers do?
Amazon hasn’t made many mistakes to date. This might well be yet another case of jumping on the digital bandwagon, or else being steamrollered by it as the rest of the travelling world rides off towards the sunny, if partially synthetic, horizon.
Check out the Argentina tours and classes at signaturetours.com.ar
See what might be coming soon to the UK from Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/b?ie=UTF8&node=19419898011