Chinese tourist destination Zhangjiajie – a city in the southern province of Hunan – has been designated “the world’s first scenic spot metaverse research and development (R&D) centre”. The scenic area was made famous around the world by the movie “Avatar”: the “flying mountains” of the exomoon Pandora were inspired in part by the dramatic rock pillars of Zhangjiajie. The announcement has generated a heated debate on social media whether the idea is just a way to capitalise on the latest metaverse hype or if it is a serious research effort.

Industry insiders dubbed the plan by the tourist destination as “bold” but still “within reasonable reach”, as the gaming, culture and entertainment industries are set to be the first to adopt the metaverse. However, existing metaverse plans by big tech companies, such as Facebook, Microsoft and Tencent remain in their infancy.

The Zhangjiajie metaverse R&D centre will be set up in the Wulingyuan scenic area, a famous UNESCO World Heritage site photographs of which were used in the production of Avatar. With the announcement, local officials said, “the Wulingyuan scenic area will provide tourists with a more exciting travel experience, richer travel products, and a more comfortable travel environment.”

Many netizens, however, remained sceptical, questioning whether the tourist destination was simply jumping aboard the latest technology hype bandwagon.

“It sounds amazing, although I don’t understand what it means. Scenic areas and tourist destinations have now also begun studying the metaverse?” wrote one user online.

“I’ll believe high-tech companies or economically developed areas studying the metaverse. But I’m quite surprised about a tourist destination studying the metaverse,” another netizen pointed out, adding that “the metaverse is still just a concept. It takes time and a strong economic foundation to develop. Wulingyuan District in Zhangjiajie is a bit far-fetched.”

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Regarding the doubts of netizens, a Wulingyuan District spokesperson asserted that Zhangjiajie had been at the forefront of tourism innovation. The Zhangjiajie Metaverse Research Centre will mainly focus on the integration and development of tourism and the metaverse and use “technological innovation” to drive “applicable innovation” and “industrial innovation” to cultivate new products in the tourism industry.

“We are serious about studying the metaverse,” officials asserted.

Meanwhile, Zhou Hongyi, the founder of 360 Group, a Chinese internet company, said on Saturday that the “metaverse does not represent the future, but the decline of mankind.”

Following Facebook’s rebrand as Meta, many tech companies, including Microsoft, IBM and Apple, revealed their metaverse plans. In the case of Microsoft, ambitions involve adding 3D virtual avatars and environments to its Teams messaging system – with or without a virtual reality headset.

However, Microsoft president Brad Smith has since downplayed the “hype” surrounding the metaverse.

“We’re all talking about the metaverse as if we’re entering some new dimension,” Smith told Reuters. “This is not like dying and going to heaven. We’re all going to be living in the real world with people.”

Although initially reluctant to speak out on the topic, Chinese internet giants have since also asserted that they will build the metaverse.

Gaming giants Tencent and NetEase have both stated that they have the technology and resources to work on the latest hot-topic in tech. More recently, Bilibili, another Chinese gaming company, also said that it would work on metaverse plans.

This month, China’s biggest telcos China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, joined forces with several tech companies to form the Metaverse Industry Committee, the country’s first industry group dedicated to the concept.

State media outlets are, however, less excited. On Thursday, the People’s Daily, a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, warned against the hype, saying that “everyone still needs to stay rational in understanding the current metaverse mania”.

The metaverse is described by GlobalData social media research as a “virtual world where users share experiences and interact in real-time within simulated scenarios”. For those who see a business future for the metaverse, 2021 was a big year. However, it appears that scepticism remains strong in some quarters.