2016 is set to be the year of virtual reality: Familiar names like Facebook, Google, Sony and Samsung are all vying for the attention of mainstream audiences across the globe. And while these VR headsets are getting headlines for revolutionizing the worlds of medical training, gaming, cinema, and journalism, it's the tourist industry that could be transformed if used to its full potential.

We already use Google Street View when planning to visit a location for the first time, since it enables us to get our bearings before we embark on the journey. The latest virtual reality headsets are now giving users the ability to sample a new experience via 360-degree immersive videos that transport the user to anywhere in the world.

This technology offers an opportunity to walk around any destination and soak up the sights and sounds of the surrounding area, making it much easier to decide where you would like to visit, what hotel you would like to stay at and what excursions you would like to book in advance.

Booking an exciting trip very often involves a great deal of guesswork and wading through hundreds of online reviews. Imagine having the ability to enjoy a virtual walk around those locations on your bucket list before booking your next vacation.

Some might fear that a virtual tour around a far-away destination will be enough to satisfy some travelers--no trip necessary. 

But a virtual journey could never replace the insatiable appetite for travel and the life-changing experiences you encounter along the way. This virtual sample of almost any location in the world will be a game changer for the tourism industry. It will take user experience to the next level.

Travel agencies have struggled to bring people back into their stores over the last few years thanks to the Internet. In the UK and Belgium, however,  one of Europe's biggest tour operators Thomas Cook rolled out Samsung Gear VR headsets in a bid to entice customers back into its stores by offering to bring dream vacation destinations to life.

Before thinking this is yet another gimmick that will quickly fade into obscurity before it even gets off the ground, a quick look at the results of the 'Try Before You Fly' scheme revealed in the first three months alone it generated flights and hotel bookings of over $17,000 and a 40% return on investment. The service was also responsible for a 190% uplift in New York excursions proving how this technology captures the imagination of travelers.

Online reviews, brochures or videos cannot compete with the immersive 360-degree video where you could experience what it would be like to take a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti, white water rafting along the Colorado River or see New England in the Fall. It's these bite-sized samples that feel incredibly real to consumers that will effortlessly boost tourism sales by feeding our wanderlust.

Hotels will be able to provide visitors with realistic expectations of what it's like to stay at their establishment and the services they offer--while also making it incredibly easy to upsell premium services for those that want to spoil themselves.

The world of virtual reality might still be in its infancy, but don't be fooled into thinking it's all about gaming. As technology continues to progress, we can expect the travel industry to exploit VR's fantastic capabilities.