Think Google Earth plus a travel guide. Suzhou Great Landscape Technology recently launched a 3D service which has created a replica of the Jinji Lake in Suzhou, China.

It allows users to explore the lake area virtually on both PC and smartphone (available on Android and iOS) through a 360 degree “Street View”-style tour while listening to an audio guide at their own pace. By July 8 the app had seen more than 20,000 PC downloads and more than 3000 smartphone downloads.

The idea behind virtual tourism is that visitors could ‘roam’ the destination at home before the actual visit, giving them the comfort of knowing what to expect beyond arrival. Users can use the app to interact with others, post blog entries, share photos, videos and 3D works. 3D Jinji Lake will also partner with third-party online travel booking engines and online shopping websites.

Typically, online travel services start with providing travel tips, itineraries and traveler feedback. With a growing number of users such websites will then monetize through affiliate product sales and advertising. Some successful domestic travel websites include Mafengwo, Lvmama and We are going through a revolution in virtual reality. There have been virtual applications similar to the Jinji Lake App, like the Virtual Forbidden City by IBM.

Despite the buzz around the marriage of 3D technology and travel apps, most in the tourism industry think that a 3D system’s high operation costs outweigh its profits. I reckon a virtual tour may be informative, but navigating on a keyboard or mouse pales in comparison to the fun that comes with real physical interaction with the travel destination. Partnering with big travel websites may drive more visits to a start-up travel app and subsequently increase its revenues.

To that end, 3D Jinji Lake is already on its way to join Mafengwo by the end of this year. The app currently covers six themed areas of the Jinji Lake: the Ferris Wheels, the Grand Bridge, the Cultural Water Corridor, the Lakeshore Boulevard, the Peach Blossom Island and the Ligong Dike. Its developer, Great Landscape Technology and Suzhou Institute of Wuhan University, are planning to expand their virtual tour offerings to include other popular travel destinations across China. They are already working on Yangcheng Lake Peninsula, also in Jiangsu Province and famous for the Chinese mitten crabs.

Telling the uncommon China stories through tech. I can be reached at ritacyliao [at] gmail [dot] com.

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