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Imagine yourself walking city streets and immediately knowing what lies behind the walls of an old town building. As you move around, a voice in your head tells you a secret history fact, directs you to a scenic route or gives an insider tip on what to try in a local restaurant that you are passing by right this moment. According to the co-founders of the startup Near, Donatas Vainilaitis and Karolina Rapalytė-Masilionė, that is exactly how we will be travelling after this global pandemic.
Lietuviai grįžo namo specialiais reisais.
Lietuviai grįžo namo specialiais reisais.
© Shutterstock

“Near was inspired by the idea that every city can be likened to an endlessly interesting open book. Before COVID-19 we could read these books by attending crowded museums, tours and events. Our app allows exploring a city while social distancing and getting an exercise in fresh air. Put on some music, walk down a street and your phone will tell you about the interesting things you might otherwise just pass by,” says co-founder of Near, Donatas Vainilaitis.

The travel and hospitality industry is rushing to adopt smart solutions that would help customers feel safe again. Smart technologies are replacing human contact when boarding a plane, checking into a hotel or cleaning airport premises. However, experience-related traveller needs, that have been growing during lockdowns, remain largely unanswered. While reading lengthy travel guides and browsing visitor reviews was the norm before, today, having spent months indoors, travellers want to dedicate more time to experience the places that have been on their minds during lockdown.

The growing need to experience more and browse less is supported by the increasingly widespread use of voice technologies such as Siri and Alexa. Near uses voice to inform the user once they come close to anything worth their attention and delivers hand-picked facts, stories and tips in a bite-sized, easy to digest format. Moving around Vilnius, the user might hear which house was occupied by a local Masonic lodge, how to find the entrance to a hidden botanical garden or what restaurant will offer them a stew made from beaver meat.

Worldwide Health Organisation urges the public to avoid closed spaces and large crowds, making the solutions that would allow travellers to explore a city safely as important as ever. With Vilnius as the very first step in the startup’s journey, Near is already expanding to more cities worldwide and are confident that such intuitive tourism innovations will be inseparable from travelling to any part of the world in the future. D. Vainilaitis says that the trending global shift from mindless content consumption to an augmented exploration of your surroundings only further confirms these ambitions are worth pursuing.

“The desire to travel has not gone away. It is the travel habits that have changed. As we see foreign tourists gradually returning to Lithuania, we believe this trend will only be more visible in the near future. At the moment, the average traveller is opting for a shorter stay while still wanting to experience as much of the city as possible. Vilnius is the perfect city for trips like this. It is compact enough to explore on foot, cycling or riding a scooter, all while receiving the most interesting city trivia to your headphones”, says D. Vainilaitis.

Aside from foreign visitors, the app has sparked an interest among Lithuanians as well. The capital city is full of facts and stories even most locals are unaware of, which inspires them to go out to the streets of Vilnius and become tourists in their own country.

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