No passport is required, the flights are free and there's no carbon footprint. Gemma Bowes books a virtual package tour of cyberspace

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I'm ambling along the beach, palm trees looming through the dusky haze of sunset. I can just make out some lights through the trees and, as I draw closer, I realise it is a beach club, with dozens of gorgeous people dancing on the sand.

After joining them for a while, I follow a sign for a treehouse campsite and find an open-air lodge, with verandahs built up into the trees and bean bags and designer chairs round open fires. I recline for a while before Mario, my tour operator, says he wants to buy me some designer clothes and then take me skiing.

It seems I've stumbled upon my dream holiday. What's more, it's free, totally eco-friendly, and instead of long flights we simply teleport.

Mario Gerosa's tours are a little different to your average package holiday. He's the world's first virtual tour operator, offering holidays in cyberspace through his company, Synthravels, to online 3D, interactive worlds, which together have around 20 million users worldwide.

Like a combination of a computer game and a chat room, these complex digital worlds are downloaded over the internet and allow people to explore the graphic environments and interact with each other via an avatar, a digital version of themselves.

The most famous virtual world, Second Life, has attracted 4.6 million members since it was developed in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Lab. Now the first virtual holidays to this and other digital worlds are being offered by Synthravels, which Mario launched last October.

There are two threads of development that could be construed as virtual tourism. One is the increasing use of 3D technology to create a virtual replication of real places through tools such as Google Earth, 360-degree photographs or digital 3D tours. The other is to explore virtual worlds for the sake of having a travelling experience rather than just to chat to people online or play a game.

In Second Life, these movements are coming together as travel companies start to recognise the possible benefits to their industry. The Starwood hotel group has created the first virtual hotel as a way of gathering feedback on the designs for its planned new Aloft chain.

Frank Shaw, of the Centre For Future Studies, who predicts trends in tourism, believes the industry will embrace this technology: "As more people are tailor-making their own holidays, agents and operators have to fight for attention and add value to their services. What we will see is a very sophisticated form of travel brochure, where people can experience their holiday before they book it."

Replications of real destinations don't yet exist in the virtual programmes but the potential is there.

I decide to put the concept to test by organising my own virtual holiday. I start my journey at the low-tech end of the spectrum, in a small digital world called Virtual Ibiza, in which you move a chosen character across 2D spaces that depict real Ibizan hotspots.

The novelty of making my character walk up and down a beach, dance, rave or drink soon wears thin, so I try to engage other members in conversation.

"Does anyone want to go to the beach?" I ask my fellow virtual holidaymakers. "Yes please, Gemma, can we have sex with you there?" says someone called Oakley. "I'm a journalist writing about virtual holidays, would you say this is one?" I venture. "I'll choke her," replies someone called Stones. "Gag her more like," says Oakley, adding, "I'm up for anything, a spit roast."

This is not quite the holiday I had in mind, so I log out.

My attempts to start the Second Life programme prove stressful so I resort to ringing the IT department at work for help, and luckily a Second Life user answers the phone.

It's like I've found a member of a secret society as he whispers conspiratorially: "Once you start, there's no going back."

The programme pops up on my screen and I find myself on Orientation Island, designing my avatar, which could take hours - there are 29 settings for your hair alone.

It's all relatively simple and self-explanatory, and I'm struck by the quality of the graphics and complexity of the 3D world.

But after a few hours I feel confused and frustrated. I'm not sure how a lot of functions work, can't find nice places to go or friendly people, and the only way I feel like I'm on holiday is that I'm virtually jetlagged.

The idea of a virtual tour guide instantly makes sense. Having a someone to explain what you are seeing, how to use your tools and where to find the best places stops it all feeling so pointless.

First of all, Mario - or rather his avatar, Frank Koolhaas - teleports me to meet him in a clothes shop and kits me out, spending his own Linden dollars, the "in world" currency you can buy with real money.

"This is an elitist world and people will judge you for your appearance," says Frank, and, having accidentally turned myself into a naked nymph with giant dragonfly wings and a unicorn horn on my head, I need to sort out my look.

First on the itinerary is some skiing at the Wolf Mountain Ski Lodge, where you can ride the chairlift and slide down the slopes, stopping for some virtual champagne halfway down. Often my avatar's movements take on a life of their own, so she taps her feet while waiting, slurps from a glass of champagne or dances.

You can't taste, hear or feel anything, but it's enjoyable, kind of like day-dreaming about being on holiday.

There are 1000 regions in Second Life, but Frank teleports me around some of the most visually pleasing, interactive areas: Suffugium, a futuristic "sci-fi/cyberpunk" land inspired by Blade Runner; a replication of the Dordogne's Lascaux caves (wrong shape, but with the right paintings); and Caledon, a "steampunk" land, which means Victorian style with modern inventions.

According to Mario, Second Life is a different kind of holiday, not a substitute for a real one. But you can still visit different countries.

There's a Little Italy, a Dublin with Irish pubs and Ihla Brasil, which attracts Portuguese speakers.

Then there are the furries of Luskwood, who have animalistic avatars, and a place called Gor, where the resident Goreans live according to a novel by John Norman, The Cycle of Gor, with courtesy, slavery and female subservience as key beliefs.

In a bid to try different cultures, I visit Gor alone and witness women in sexy outfits kneeling before men.

I get told off for being impolite, then talk to a girl who spends 13 hours a day in Second Life because she's miserable in the real world. It's quite depressing.

I ride a jet ski around Store Island, go surfing, meditate and watch the sunset in Hawaii, join a party in Egypt and go shopping in Dublin.

This isn't as easy as I'd expected because in Second Life there is no search engine, so unless you know the exact name of the place you're looking for you won't find it.

What is missing, I think is an informative, educational element. There doesn't seem to be much to learn, unless you happen to meet someone interesting online, and it's a shame the areas relating to real destinations don't give any information about the real thing.

Exploring is certainly fun for a while, occasionally stimulating, sometimes relaxing. It offers some sort of escapism, but I think I agree with Frank Shaw, who says that, fundamentally, the point of a holiday is to move yourself somewhere different physically - and virtual reality can't really come close.

Checklist
How to take a virtual trip
Second Life
Download Second Life free at www.secondlife.com. You need Windows 2000/XP: 1.13.3.2. or Mac OS X: 1.13.3.2.

Register and design your avatar. To buy virtual land to build on, become a member, from about $15 per month.

Linden Dollars are available from Lindex, the Linden Dollar Exchange on the website. L$500 are worth around $3, enough to buy a set ofclothes from a top SL designer.

Areas to visit on your virtual holiday include Hawaii for surfing and beaches, Virtual Festival for clubbing, Midnight City and Dublin for shopping, Wolf Mountain Ski Resort, Montmartre, Suffugium, Lascaux, Caledon and Alston.

To book a free virtual tour, visit www.synthravels.com.

Tours with a guide are available for 27 virtual worlds and games, including Second Life, World of Warcraft (with combat games), Dark Age of Camelot and The Matrix Online.

Other virtual worlds
Virtual Ibiza
(www.virtualibiza.com), Habbo Hotel (www.habbo.co.uk), which hosts music events and pub quizzes.

Club Penguin (www.clubpenguin.com) where children aged eight-14 can use penguin avatars.

- Observer