For tourists, it's virtually a day-trip to Brighton

The Net was the first resort when the seaside town wanted a new way to promote its attractions. Tom Shepherd reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Amsterdam's De Digitale Stad is the model virtual town. Opened in 1994, it is more than just an information resource. It is a thriving community with more than 20,000 users who chat to each other in virtual cafes, post messages in discussion groups and build home pages, all within the virtual city's walls. It also acts as an Internet Service Provider.

Most of Britain's virtual towns were set up only in the last year, so they still have some way to go before they are as good as De Digitale Stad. Towns such as Manchester, Nottingham and Blackpool have Internet equivalents, but none is as advanced as Virtual Brighton, where local Web designers have teamed up with the town's tourism industry to promote Brighton through the Net.

Simon and Neil Turner, the brothers behind the site, say it is one of the most popular sites in Britain, with about 5,000 accesses a week. "Virtual Brighton is a resource for tourists, locals and people who used to live in Brighton and want to keep an eye on what's happening back home," says Simon.

Brighton Council's tourism and marketing division was quick to see the Internet as an inexpensive way of promoting the town all over the world, and provided text and pictures for a Virtual Brighton tourist guide.

"As soon as the pages were up we began to receive e-mails from as far away as Japan and Mexico asking for more information," says Amanda Shepherd, Brighton's marketing manager. "Once we saw how useful the Net could be, we decided to invest in a conference site within VB, so that organisers could access information to help them plan their events."

More than 30 hotels have joined the site. Brighton's oldest, the Old Ship, gets about 12 bookings a week from people who have seen its online brochure.

John Davis, the general manager, has hired a programmer to link the hotel's Virtual Brighton site to their booking computer. "You'll be able to key in the dates you want and book direct with a secure transaction," he says.

For visitors who suffer Internet withdrawal symptoms, the Old Ship even hires out PCs, modems and a private e-mail box. Once in Brighton they could plan a night out using VB's entertainment listings from a local arts magazine, restaurant reviews and pub guides written by local people. Soon there will be a Gay Brighton section, introductions to the town by foreigners in their own language, and an online tour of the Royal Pavilion.

Virtual Brighton is also adopting new Internet technologies. Visitors can already fly through a VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language) model of the town, which allows three-dimensional "travelling", and interactive Shockwave maps are coming soon. This will mean you can click on a point on the map, and extra details will appear.

The site has a guest book where visitors can post messages, but Simon and Neil hope to add Web newsgroups and chat areas so that tourists can talk to locals at any time. This is now much easier to do, thanks to Java, Sun's Internet programming language: visitors will be able to enter a chat area without leaving the Web.

Virtual Brighton: www.pavilion.

De Digitale Stad:

Other British virtual towns:

Birmingham: landmark/vb

Blackpool: www.digitalresorts.

London: www.virtual-london.

Manchester: www.manchester.

Nottingham: www.hypereality. websitedesigns/bexhill