1 Introduction

The phenomenon of tourism as a subject of scientific inquiry got attention only in the past decades, alongside the recognition of its scale and possible impacts on society [1]. For a long time, it was understood as a coherent, clearly delineated activity based primarily on the assumption that people travel physically by relevant means of transport to pre-selected locations for a planned amount of time [2]. Such an assumption became a background for a contemporary explanation of the tourism phenomenon.

Technologies are known to have transformative power over life. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have transformed the tourist industry over the last decades [3]. Service providers in tourist destinations, tour operators, and other intermediaries develop new models for addressing customers, invest in new sales channels, and reorganise their production processes for travel and leisure products. New tourism services, such as virtual reality (VR) day trips in museums, amusement parks, or exit rooms, have emerged due to digital transformation [4, 5]. The 4th Technological Revolution has led to structural changes among market players in terms of supply and demand. It has created new opportunities for advancing the tourist experience and challenged business competitiveness through innovations.

Metaverse has been named among the transformational technologies believed to have a revolutionary effect on human life. It goes beyond augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) and offers the transformational experience of a virtual world with economic, social and cultural interactions on a large scale [6]. Thus, Disney works towards blending the physical Disneyland and Disney World experience with real-time virtual concerts, shops for virtual avatars and AR location-based personalised communication with the Disney characters [7]. Large technology companies, venture capital, private equities, startups, and established brands are interested in capitalising on the opportunities presented by the Metaverse. Investments by these businesses resulted in more than $120 billion in the first five months of 2022, more than double the $57 billion from 2021 [8]. Buhalis & Karatay [9] highlight that Metaverse will have a transformative effect on tourism. However, the degree of the possible change of tourism under the influence of the Metaverse remains underexplored.

This paper aims to conceptualise the phenomenon of Metaverse towards the phenomenon of tourism to identify possible alignment and discrepancies between the phenomena. It reports the results of a semi-systematic literature review and subsequent conceptualisation of the term “metaverse”. The paper concludes that there is a conceptual overlap between the phenomena of the Metaverse and tourism. The tourism industry should be ready for the reciprocal effects of tourism on metaverse development and vice versa, as well as a possible dissolution of the contemporary understanding of tourism.

2 Literature Review

2.1 The Phenomenon of Metaverse

Metaverse is a technology-driven “virtual world” that is expected to transform human interactions. The “Metaverse” was first mentioned in a science-fiction novel in 1992 and was envisioned as an alternative virtual world. It represented an interconnected network of virtual spaces aimed to amplify an individual world [10]. Cameron [11] conceptualises metaspace as a “bigger outside” that lies beyond the space where humanity operates now. According to them, it may be presented by a utopia (i.e., a fictional unrealistically perfect space), endotopia (i.e., a realistically looking standardised representation of any space), and xenotopia or Metaverse (i.e., a space beyond the current human spatiality). In all three cases, artificially created metaspaces are characterised by economic, cultural, moral, and legal norms and regulations.

Metaverse implementation relies on a range of technologies [6, 12]. The advancements in technologies and the proliferation of extended reality (XR) devices have enabled the envisioned version of a metaverse in real life [6]. This made an online world an integral part of the real one to co-create and personalise external reality [11, 12]. The technology to create the Metaverse is rapidly evolving with the use of VR headsets, haptic gloves, AR, and XR [10]. The Metaverse can effectively interconnect virtuality with reality by contributing new opportunities for users to participate actively in immersive experiences. This creates preconditions for new experiences and services to be created in tourism through interactions and immersive experiences.

The 4th technological revolution with constant connectivity, the high processing power of personal devices, and innovative computing paradigms, including artificial intelligence and blockchain, have triggered a revolution, making the Metaverse possible to implement [13]. According to the Financial Times [14], interactions within Metaverse will replace smartphone-based communication in the upcoming decade. It is becoming increasingly important to understand the contemporary phenomenon of the Metaverse with a view to its potential effect on tourism.

2.2 The Contemporary Phenomenon of Tourism

Tourism has been widely recognised as a distinctive type of human activity. In 1979, Leiper [15] highlighted five “elements” that create a functional and spatial tourism system: tourists, demand-generating regions, destination regions, a tourist industry, and transit routes. Kaspar et al. [16] explain that tourism essentially consists of two subsystems: “tourism-subject” (i.e., tourist) and “tourism-object” (i.e., tourism locations, tourism enterprises and tourism organisations). The contemporary definition by UNWTO [17] highlights people who travel, the purpose of travel, places outside of tourists’ normal environment, and the process of transitioning from a normal to a tourist place as building blocks of the tourism phenomenon. The existence of tourism as a standalone phenomenon is determined by people who generate tourism demand, destinations that can satisfy this demand, the ecosystem that provides relevant services and, importantly, the tourist escape as a process that enables the satisfaction of the tourism demand.

Tourist Needs and the Purpose of Travel.

UNWTO [17] summarises travelling as being motivated by “business, leisure or other personal” purposes. To introduce a taxonomy of tourist products, McKercher [18] proposes a more diverse classification of tourist needs (pleasure, business, personal quest, nature, and human endeavour) that ought to be satisfied. Crompton [19] additionally emphasises the need for socio-psychological and cultural escape from daily routine. Tourism is largely determined by tourism demand and tourism products’ potential to satisfy it.

Tourist Destination and Place Concept.

People are motivated to travel from their usual places to satisfy their needs. Regardless of its type, size, popularity, etc., place is defined as any destination outside the tourist's usual environment [15]. There are practices of distinguishing between “usual” and tourist environment by the frequency or the length of stay [20] and by measuring physical distance [21]. Lehto et al. [22] emphasise that being “outside of a usual environment” might mean being in a virtual place or a mental state of leisure. The concept of a tourist destination refers not only to a physical location but to any environment that is different from the everyday one.

Tourism Ecosystem.

Ryan [23] defines tourism as a phenomenon that is characterised by economic activities performed by demand generators who are staying away from home and by supplies which offer accommodation and related services to satisfy this demand. McIntosh and Goeldner [24] specify that tourism is a collection of specific tourism activities with associated services (i.e. accommodation, dining, transportation, shopping, entertaining) and business entities. Being one of the largest global industries, tourism can be a beneficial and destructive factor for the economic and socio-cultural environment [25]. An in-depth understanding of tourism as a phenomenon is essential for the sustainable development of destinations, countries, and entire regions [26].

Escape from the Usual Environment to Become a Tourist.

The spatial and temporal parameters have been introduced as the differentiators for quantifying tourism effects. Thus, an overnight stay outside the home has been applied to differentiate between a visitor and a tourist [15]. The maximum threshold recommended for distinguishing tourists from residents has been set as one year since 2008 [17]. However, the escape is related not only to the physical state but to the state of mind and experience, such as relaxation experiences, experiences of nature or culinary experiences, etc. Tourism is commonly known as a liminal activity, defined as a ‘transition from known to unknown’ [27] and is associated with the change in human behaviour from everyday routines to often uncommon preferences. The parameters of transitioning from normal to tourist behaviour and back remain underexplored [28].

The tourism phenomenon is not static [1, 29]. Historically, social, economic, political, and other factors have already triggered the stages of its development. They have also changed the understanding of who a traveller is, what can be the purpose of travel, and its possible effects on sustainable development [26, 30]. The complexity of the tourism phenomenon and its dimensions determine its adaptiveness [15]. Tourism footprints, political importance, and transformational technologies are forecasted to trigger future turning points in tourism development [30]. The 4th Technological Revolution made completely new forms of tourism and leisure activities possible. Thus, virtual travel to the Middle Ages became a reality via games. The borders of space and time are being challenged. The traditional understanding of tourism can become too narrow to incorporate the new reality. However, the intersection between the tourism phenomena and the Metaverse is still not well understood. Both concepts involve people as users or tourists, address real or virtual spaces, describe otherness with experiences, and ultimately need an ecosystem to function. Envisioning a possible alignment between these factors is essential to understanding the future of tourism and its impacts on society.

3 Methodology

This paper represents a semi-systematic literature review [31]. This methodology is advantageous for developing an overview of research areas, tracking conceptual development, and providing theoretical perspectives for topics from diverse disciplines. The study consisted of five stages (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1.
figure 1

Semi-systematic literature review process

First, the literature review conceptualised the knowledge on tourism to define critical dimensions that distinguish tourism from other activities. Four dimensions were identified to guide the analysis. Second, a systematic literature search was conducted. Historically, the term “Metaverse” was used to represent one of the utopic ideas of alternative worlds. However, the technology-enabled alternative world, which became possible with the advancements of the 4th Industrial Revolution, is commonly referred to as the “Metaverse”. Other keywords, such as AR and VR, represent tools which can be used by Metaverse and are not helpful in understanding the phenomenon itself. The study used the single keyword “metaverse” to increase data validity. The search was performed in peer-review journals and conference proceedings across Web of Science, Science Direct, and Google Scholar databases for the studies published from January 1992 till July 2022. The systematic literature search identified 729 articles that conceptualised Metaverse as a phenomenon. Third, the screening and filtering were conducted by reading the abstracts to exclude repeating and irrelevant articles, such as IT/software development papers. 73 papers in which the Metaverse was the subject under investigation were retained for the analysis. Forth, the extraction process searched for exclusive definitions of Metaverse across the selected papers. 24 exclusive definitions of Metaverse have been retrieved. Fifth, the extracted definitions were analysed qualitatively and quantitatively. The critical dimensions of the tourism phenomenon identified in the literature review (Satisfaction of needs, Destination, Ecosystem and Escape) were applied as codes for the metaverse definitions analysis to identify possible alignment between the phenomena. Additionally, the study calculated the frequency of each code in the metaverse definitions to ensure the reliability of inferences and establish potential gaps in the knowledge. Last, the acquired knowledge on the Metaverse within the four dimensions was conceptualised with the knowledge about tourism to envision a possible interplay between tourism and the Metaverse.

4 Findings

The findings indicate major attention to the concept of the Metaverse, with the number of definitions doubling since 2021. Table 1 summarises the codes identified in the analysed definitions. Earlier explanations of the Metaverse largely focused on the technical aspect of designing ecosystems in virtual worlds. Recent developments offer a more holistic view of the phenomena.

4.1 Tourist Needs in Metaverse

Metaverse is initially envisioned to enhance real spaces and existing services [9]. This opens opportunities to enhance and diversify customer experience [32]. Thus, the Metaverse provides innovative opportunities for communication, collaboration and socialisation [33], which leads to new ways for value co-creation for its stakeholders [9]. The Metaverse is also expected to affect sustainability [34]. Together, this creates a potential to satisfy diverse needs.

Metaverse, therefore, can support some of the activities currently common for tourism. It can be conceptualised as a phenomenon that creates new potential for enhancing touristic experiences [37] and satisfying tourist needs [10]. However, ways to deliver experiences reliably remain underdefined.

Table 1. Identified themes in metaverse definitions

4.2 Destination Metaverse

Metaverse offers its users different types of created environments. Technological advancements currently enable the creation of two distinguished types of simulated reality: real-based and virtual-based spaces [39]. Real-based Metaverse is an augmentation of an existing physical space, such as a tourist sight, with artificially designed digital objects or people. Virtual-based Metaverse simulates an alternative, digital world, where interactions occur instead of the real location [12; 35]. The design of metaverse infrastructure and different combinations of AR, VR and XR technologies opens a range of options for envisioning environments.

Tourism destinations serve as means for satisfying tourism demand outside of their usual environment. Metaverse destinations, created for tourism, may synthesise real and virtual environments [9, 33]. This could range from 2D or 3D virtual objects overlaying real travel sights to full “incarnations” [42] of existing tourist sights. They can offer extra services, such as additional information and entertainment at tourist sights [12] while retaining the main attractions. Alternatively, the Metaverse may provide a revolutionary approach to designing alternative, fully immersive and self-sustaining virtual travel destinations that do not exist and are even impossible in the real world [47]. Advancing the technical capabilities of the metaverse offer opportunities from satisfying the existing tourist demands to creating new “pull” factors to attract tourists.

4.3 Metaverse Ecosystem

The Metaverse is explained as a simulated reality. Rather than being a product that satisfies specific needs (e.g., a virtual game or a shop), the Metaverse is initially planned to reconstruct the ecosystem of relationships that are natural for the real world. Such ecosystems include multiple players with economic, financial, social, and cultural institutions [39; 40]. Metaverse can be explained as a virtual copy of smart cities with technology driving value co-creation for its players [42]. Importantly, the Metaverse is defined as having potential alternating social environments and norms [42]. Political and legal frameworks should be established to moderate such an ecosystem [6].

Metaverse and tourism ecosystems conceptually align with each other. This alignment opens the potential for multiple scenarios of co-development. Thus, the metaverse ecosystem might become integrated into a tourist ecosystem, supplementing it with resources to provide tourists with additional services. Alternatively, the tourism ecosystem might become constitute a larger metaverse ecosystem, offering its users a specific context.

4.4 Escape with Metaverse

The metaverse concept itself represents an escape from reality [37]. Lee et al. [41] explain that the Metaverse requires constant connectivity and interoperability of the devices that provide access to the Metaverse. Lim et al. [45] and Wang et al. [43] emphasise that Metaverse is the next generation of “embodied Internet”. Users can access augmented and virtual objects at any time and location [9]. Moreover, the Metaverse can be conceptualised as an open space for logging into a simulated world – pausing the experience – and logging back into the same context [9, 46]. Experiencing the Metaverse outside of a real environment can be a continuous process [14].

For tourism, Metaverse gives the promise to provide a liminal place for an escape from the everyday environment. Access to the Metaverse can technically be granted to tourists, who virtually transition there from any place and any time themselves and via their avatars [43, 45]. This creates space for transitioning to tourist behaviour in the metaverse environment. Meanwhile, in the case of an AR overlay of reality, tourists technically need to see the tourism destination, i.e., to be there. A fully created metaverse travel destination can technically provide a continuous embodied experience free from physical space and time.

The analysis shows an intersection between tourism and metaverse phenomena. Both phenomena offer an escape from the everyday environment at their core. In tourism and Metaverse, alternative environments with specific attractions serve as spaces for such an escape. Both tourism and Metaverse develop conceptually similar ecosystems to enable economic, social, cultural, and political relationships in the new places. Importantly, the metaverse ecosystem is technically suitable for supporting some of the activities relevant to tourism, thereby creating a potential to satisfy tourist demands. However, the strategic and service design questions, i.e., what kind of specific needs can be satisfied and how to design the metaverse ecosystem to provide the escape and these needs satisfaction, remains underdefined.

5 Discussion

The alignment between the critical dimensions of tourism and metaverse concepts opens an opportunity for mutual and reciprocal effects. The study supports the idea that the Metaverse will have a transformative effect on tourism [9]. It proceeds with envisioning the possible discrepancies in tourism under the influence of the Metaverse.

5.1 Metaverse Services as a Niche for Tourism

The metaverse destination can manifest itself in the physical world [39]. Metaverse creates an opportunity for technology-enhanced and reinforced tourist experiences. On the demand side, both consumer interest and the desire for virtual supplements already exist [8]. The demand for a deeper cultural experience, learning, self-actualisation in society, and ethical and sustainable tourism, is expected to increase, opening a space for new technology-driven services [50]. On the supply side, the elements of metaverse tourism destinations already exist (e.g., Incheon in Korea, Deutsches Museum Munich). Characteristics of these services, such as 2D or 3D objects, animations, or text, already enrich the physical tourist destinations. The evolving technologies and the promise to realise the Metaverse and a realistic, self-sustaining cultural, social and economic environment [6] will expand opportunities for designing tourism services. The intersection of Metaverse and tourism establishes a potential for complementary tourism services and new niche services to satisfy the demand of specific target groups.

5.2 Transformation of Tourism Under Metaverse

The Metaverse is designed to create an alternative reality that enables continuous escape from the everyday environment [12]. On the supply side, the virtual-based Metaverse creates a space for new experiences, as well as for alternative destinations that do not or cannot exist in the physical world. The specific features of the Metaverse, such as the possibility of two-way interaction and new self-made egos (i.e. avatars) [39], immersion and embodied experience [42], enable multiple scenarios of co-development. For example, several vacation experiences become possible in temporally short sequences, in different roles and at various metaverse locations. Metaverse has the technological potential to create new tourist experiences that transcend the traditional understanding of time and space and erase the border between virtual and real tourist escape. Importantly, an increasing digital affinity of young target groups such as Gen Z or Alpha lead is expected to spread the demand for metaverse experience. This forecast is supported by large technology companies, venture capital (VC), private equity (PE), startups, and established brands that are making large investments to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the Metaverse [8]. Depending on the scenario, the Metaverse might become an integral component of the tourist ecosystem with so far unknown virtual possibilities to experience people, objects, attractions, time travel, etc. Vice versa, tourism might become a niche product within the metaverse ecosystem.

The abovenamed integration of the Metaverse and tourism phenomena may ultimately lead to a dissolution of the traditional understanding of tourism. It has already been acknowledged that the concept of place in tourism may be understood both as a physical location, as a virtually created destination and even as a mentality or a state of mind [22]. New experiences in the Metaverse, which are free from physical space and time, might require expanding the borders of the tourism phenomenon, which is currently measured by time and distance. The proliferation of the Metaverse as a disruptive technology may trigger the need to revise the current definition of tourism, which might soon become a broader phenomenon of “a social, cultural, and economic phenomenon that entails the transit of people or their digital twins to real or virtual places outside their usual environment for personal or business/ professional purposes”.

6 Conclusion

This study conceptualised the phenomenon of Metaverse towards the phenomenon of tourism. It has identified a substantial alignment between the two concepts. The study concludes that reciprocal effects of tourism on metaverse development and vice versa are possible. The tourism industry needs to be ready for multiple scenarios of co-development. This could range from the technological capabilities of Metaverse becoming tools to enhance tourist experience to Metaverse becoming a disruptive force that will require the entire tourism definition to be changed.

The study creates an ontological contribution by providing a better understanding of the meaning of the metaverse phenomenon, as well as envisioning a possible need for a change in the way tourism is defined. It also contributes to tourism service management and e-Tourism design by creating a first background for the research in these domains. The key practical implication of the research is a call for tourism experts to design advantageous scenarios for hybrid tourism–metaverse ecosystems. The key limitation of the study is its theoretical nature, with a lack of empirical evidence. Continuous monitoring of the joined metaverse & tourism development with a focus on a deeper understanding of the evolution of Metaverse for tourism, success factors of tourist metaverse experiences and sustainable development of tourism ecosystems, including businesses and entire destinations, is required.