TOKYO: Japanese businessman Katsuo Inoue chose Italy for this year's summer vacation, and he enjoyed the trimmings of a business class cabin and soaked up the sights of Florence and Rome - without ever leaving Tokyo.
Inoue, 56, and his wife "flew" as clients of Tokyo entertainment company First Airlines, which is tapping into a growing virtual reality travel market for Japanese holidaymakers grounded by COVID-19 restrictions.
"I often go overseas on business, but I haven’t been to Italy," he told Reuters. "My impression was rather good because I got a sense of actually seeing things there."
Grounded travelers sit in first or business class seats in a mock airline cabin where they are served in-flight meals and drinks, with flat panel screens displaying aircraft exterior views including passing clouds.
Virtual reality goggles provide immersive tours at destinations including - as well as Italy's cities of culture - Paris, New York, Rome and Hawaii.
The coronavirus has stopped most travel from Japan. The country's biggest airline, ANA Holdings, said numbers flying to foreign destinations on its planes fell by 96 per cent in June.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicted last month that it would take until 2024 for global passenger numbers to recover.
At First Airlines, where "passengers" are even given a pre-flight safety demonstration with a life vest and oxygen mask, bookings are up about 50 per cent since the pandemic began, according to the company.
"We get some customers who normally travel to Hawaii every year and they can experience some of that here," its president, Hiroaki Abe, said.
Japan has recorded over 50,000 coronavirus cases, with just over a thousand deaths, according to public broadcaster NHK. A second wave of infections that gathered pace in July has dimmed expectations for a recovery in domestic travel.