Holidays for hard times – go sightseeing in Google's world

Google's street-level pictures are giving the cash-strapped the chance of a virtual holiday. Martin Hickes reports.

Fifty years ago, many Yorkshire folk thought themselves lucky to have a two-week summer break in Scarborough.

But following the "loadsamoney" 80s spending spree, the boom and latterly the rise of the low-cost airlines, the average traveller has been able to enjoy slightly more exotic climes at cut-down prices.

But given the worst credit crunch in living memory, those looking for a cheaper alternative are turning to the "virtual holiday".

Google Earth and Google Maps have been well known for years, but now users can take a stroll down just about any street in the world thanks to the search engine's innovative Street View technology. Except of course in Milton Keynes, where residents recently formed a human chain to prevent one of Google's camera cars taking photographs of the town's streets.

Elsewhere, there has been less resistance, and rather than just hovering above a city, the technology allows viewers to "drop" down into the heart of, say, San Francisco, walking its streets at eye level.

Google has been adding more street level photos to the web over the past two years, thanks to the use of special camera cars which have been trundling around major landmarks discreetly snapping the environs.

Many cities in Yorkshire were this month added to the list of potential virtual destinations, but there's also more exotic locations, such as St Tropez, Paris, the route of the Tour de France, and even the Vatican.

Yorkshire ex-pat Adrian Hill, now a New Zealand national, is one of the many looking forward to a virtual holiday back to his home town in 2009.

"I love Yorkshire and miss it on a daily basis," says Adrian, an electronics engineer, who emigrated in 2001. "The pound may be low at the moment but it still costs an awful lot of money – and time – to fly back to Britain and to my beloved Yorkshire.

"To be honest, I'd rather stay here and take a virtual walk round the old place. I can even revisit my father's house in Leeds

"In every sense of the word, you can almost be there now without having to fork out a huge amount of money. Of course I can't see or smell the loveliness of the Yorkshire Dales, but it's still a fantastic boon.

"I travel a great deal on business and am fortunate to have seen many beautiful places in the world – this virtual experience is a great means of identifying potential future destinations as well.

"Virtual or otherwise, Yorkshire is still the best place in the world though."

Extensive mapping of New Zealand went live at the end of last year, but as well as strolling the streets of the world's most famous cities, the site also includes tours of classic monuments. Ancient Rome 3D is one of the most extensive collections of three-dimensional buildings allowing virtual tourists to visit the Roman Forum, stand in the centre of the Coliseum, trace the footsteps of the gladiators in the Ludus Magnus and fly under The Arch of Constantine.

While many virtual holiday makers won't be able to indulge in the usual pleasures of overseas shopping and duty free, the presence of many stores online even opens up the strange possibility of virtual shopping while on virtual holiday.

Google has stated that its ultimate goal is to provide street views of the entire world, but its attempts may yet be thwarted after a formal complaint was lodged by watchdogs from Privacy International claiming it infringed basic rights.

"While 'virtual travelling' might have its light-hearted appeal, we are concerned that Street View itself dose pose a privacy problem generally and we have written to Google on a number of occasions to express these urgent views," says spokesman Gus Hosein. "More than 200 members of the public have contacted Privacy International to express concern about specific images on Street View. We believe it has caused numerous instances of embarrassment and distress and that the promised privacy safeguards do not provide adequate protection."

Having blurred faces and number plates, Google has insisted all sensible precautions have been taken.

"The Information Commissioner's Office has repeatedly made clear that it believes that in Street View the necessary safeguards are in place to protect people's privacy," said a spokeswoman for the search engine. "Overall, the product has proven to be very popular already, not just in the UK but also in other countries where it has been launched. Of course, if anyone has concerns about the product or its images they can contact us and we look forward to hearing from them."

So until anyone says otherwise, the virtual world, at least, remains our oyster.