Sometimes, when things got particularly tough for George Bush during the last eight years, he found comfort by looking at his family ranch in Texas online. "I've forgot the name of the program," he told a CNBC interviewer, "but you get the satellite, and... I kinda like to look at the ranch. It reminds me of where I wanna be sometimes." The program is Google Earth, the virtual representation of the planet made out of a patchwork of satellite images and aerial photography which has become a must-have for any computer user since its launch in 2005. It allows anyone with a broadband connection to explore our world from above, with about 30 per cent of all land visible in such detail that you can see individual houses, trees and cars. However, over the last three years, most people have followed President Bush's lead and used it simply to look at their own homes.
In the last two months, technology titans from Google to IBM have put in a concerted effort to convince us that there is more to virtual travel than staring at our own roofs. And they're spending a lot of money in the attempt. Google Earth added street-level images of European cities including Paris, Barcelona, Florence and Rome in late October, meaning that you can now take a virtual stroll along their streets, pausing to read about places of particular interest on the way. Google Earth also recently introduced virtual diving, which allows you to explore protected marine areas online from north Devon's Lundy Island to the Galapagos Islands, and created a virtual version of ancient Rome to let armchair explorers wander through the classic civilisation. IBM, meanwhile, has launched an interactive, online version of the Forbidden City – all 178-acres of it – in a collaboration with Beijing's Palace Museum which cost £1.7m. It all sounds pretty exciting, but can exploring the virtual world really give us the same sense of wonder, fulfilment and utter exasperation that real tourism delivers? What is travel without lost baggage, stomach bugs and hours spent trying to work out how to use your camera? "We're providing a new view of the world, a view which was only accessible to astronauts until a few years ago," Ed Parsons, a geospatial technologist at Google, tells me. "We've also made it possible for users to share their experiences by adding their own photos and travel tips ," he adds. He does make it sound fun, and as the trip is free, doesn't involve leaving my living room, and promises to open my eyes to the splendours of our vast, teeming, ever-changing planet, I decide to give it a go.
First stop, the Bush ranch. I type "George W Bush, Prairie Chapel Ranch" into the Google Earth search box, click okay, the earth turns on its axis and I'm propelled downwards at dizzying speed until I'm hovering just over the ranch. A Wikipedia information box tells me that the ranch was previously owned by a German immigrant named Heinrich Engelbrecht who bred turkeys and hogs. Funny, from this height, the ranch and its surrounding roads look like the doodlings of a mad man.
It turns out that snooping on the rich and famous is a favourite pastime of virtual travellers. Googlesightseeing.com, a website created by such people (and not affiliated with the company Google), lists over 200 buildings of interest including Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch. However, I was hoping for something a little bit more sophisticated than aerial stalking. I ask Alex Turnbull, who launched Googlesightseeing in 2005 with his brother James, for some recommendations. "I always love visiting the giant pink bunny rabbit which we found 1,600m up a mountain in Piedmont, Italy," he says. Hmm, anything else? "There's the world's only hyperboloid pylon in Russia." And? "Well, Street View does give you a whole new angle on European cities." Ah yes, that sounds more like it. Next stop, Roma.
I type "Colosseum, Rome" into the search box, and I'm flung eastwards until I'm immediately above the landmark. From here, I can clearly make out the galleries of the Colosseum, however it looks like it's covered with lots of little blue post-it notes. These are photographs that other users have taken, and uploaded. They are rather good. Google's Ed Parsons says that hundreds of thousands of people have already done this, making Google Earth into a sort of interactive scrap book. I then zoom into Google's own photos of the area, taken as part of the Street View project. It's undeniably exciting to be staring up at the Colosseum on a rainy autumn afternoon in London. However, my fellow tourists seem rather less excited. In fact, they seem rather faceless. This is because, in order to overcome privacy concerns, Google has had to develop software which automatically rubs off people's faces in the virtual world. There may be good legal reasons for this, but it does make striking up conversation a little tricky.
Even Turnbull admits that virtual travel can't really compete with the real thing. "Of course, going up the Eiffel Tower for real is better than seeing it online," he says. "But the fact that you can go and have a look at the Eiffel Tower in your lunch break – that is exciting."
Perhaps virtual travel is just a second-best option for those of us who don't have the time or money to go and explore the world ourselves? Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, doesn't agree. "I use Google Earth all the time," he says. "In fact, I've signed up for Google Earth Plus so I can download waypoints from my GPS into Google Earth and zoom straight in to the location." For him, virtual maps are a useful aid to exploring the world for real, although he does entertain a secret hope that virtual travel might also eventually reduce the number of people tramping around the unspoilt corners of our planet.
Conservationists have had similar ideas. On the same day that Google Earth launched virtual diving, National Geographic launched a webcam on the Belize Barrier Reef. The camera is 20 metres below the surface and streams live video of all the fishes swimming around. It's calming stuff, the ideal accompaniment to a nice cup of tea, however, the fishes are a little blurry.
I have a root around the National Geographic website and find another live webcam which is much more exciting. It is situated in the Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana and I spend a very pleasant 15 minutes watching some elephants eat leaves while I tuck into a bit of toast – there's even the sound of African insects chirping away in the background. Now this is definitely more exciting than looking at a satellite image of my roof, no doubt about it.
Global view: Where to travel on the web
Set up in 2005, this is the original virtual tourism website. Under the motto, "Why bother seeing the world for real?", two Scottish brothers, Alex and James Turnbull, have collected together all that is weird and wonderful in Google Earth. It's all here from Chernobyl, to Easter Island, to naked sunbathers in The Hague. The site gets 10-11,000 visitors a day and growing.
Like Google's Street View, it allows you to take a virtual tour around city streets. It includes tours of Beijing's section of the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. However, Beijing is one of only two cities outside the US on the site (the other is Krakow). Great if you've always wondered what the Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill in Austin, Texas, looks like. Not so great if driving around the US isn't your idea of a good time.
Virtual version of Beijing's 600-year-old Forbidden City. Unlike Google Earth and Everyscape, it is not created from photographs, but computer graphics. This means it looks a lot less realistic, but is far more interactive. Each visitor has an avatar, can send text messages to other visitors, take part in activities such as archery, and also lift buildings off their foundations to have a good look at what's inside.
Several zoos have live webcams – Bristol Zoo's gorilla cam is particularly good – but for live footage of wild animals straight to your desktop, you can't beat National Geographic. Currently, it has webcams in Kakadu National Park, Australia, Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana, and on the Belize Barrier Reef. Tune in and watch animals slowly going about their business – very relaxing.