Lately, I’ve been contemplating the concept of “authentic” travelling. By “authentic,” I mean the kind of travelling that eschews anything that smacks of outside influence, be that westernized malls, multi-national products, or tour groups, and instead tries to experience the “real” culture of a country. I’m not sure when this became a trend – perhaps with the advent of Lonely Planet and its message of DIY travel – but from my purely anecdotal perspective, it has increased since I started travelling a decade ago. On the surface, at least, it sounds good – what’s the point of travelling if you don’t want to experience the “real” culture of a country? However, as the trend becomes increasingly commonplace, it at times elevates certain unappealing cultural characteristics.
The first of these is poverty. To many backpackers, authentic is code for “places untouched by the forces of globalization or western influence.” Often, however, the places that fit this definition are the ones that are experiencing the most abject poverty. Romanticizing the absence of globalization may translate subtly into romanticizing poverty. This romanticization may skew travelers perception of the harsh reality of poverty, and it also runs the risk of being patronizing: decrying the presence of multinationals ignores the fact that perhaps the locals want the products and services that the multinational is offering. McDonald’s, for example, cannot survive if locals choose not to eat there. I am not a particular fan of multi-national corporations: I just wonder how much travelers want a culture to be preserved in its “authentic” state to feed their own fantasies, rather than because they care about the interests of the locals.
The search for authenticity doesn’t necessarily stop at romanticizing poverty. My friend Tim recently posted an excellent article from Foreign Policy that highlights another element of the authentic traveling trend – the tendency of some authenticity seekers to condone vicious regimes and state brutality. The article argues that guidebooks such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guides at times paint a sympathetic portrait of, for example, the (former) Gaddhafi regime and the (former) Myanmar junta. It’s the idea of “live and let live” taken one step further. While I agree that it’s in poor taste for tourists to constantly pronounce judgement on the countries in which they are traveling, I think that there comes a point where it’s appropriate to call a spade a spade, even if that spade happens to be authentic.
I have definitely been an authenticity-seeking traveler. For example, when I was 18 and living in Nepal, I wanted so badly to have an authentic experience that I’d ignore other foreigners and pretend that I was Nepali (a bit of a stretch). This thirst has dimmed somewhat as I’ve aged – while I’d like to attribute this to an increase in wisdom, in truth, it is as much about laziness as anything else: I like to visit air-conditioned malls when I travel; I enjoy the odd trip to McDonalds; and frankly, sometimes it’s just easier to communicate with other foreigners than it is with the locals. There are still, however, certain experiences that trigger my craving for authenticity, such as when my supervisor in grad school regaled me with his tales of travel in the 1970s, before globalization exploded and he was one of the few Westerners that anyone had seen. While I envy him those experiences, I know that it’s not realistic to try to recreate them. Globalization has hit in a big way, and guidebooks and airlines have revolutionized both the volume of travelers and the manner in which they choose to travel. This was hammered home to me in the Shanghai airport, where I noticed numerous young westerners, equipped both with hi-tech backpacks, and facial expressions that screamed “Leave me alone! I’m busy being authentic.”
Perhaps the concept of authentic travel simply needs to be reframed for a new generation of travelers. This could start with the acknowledgement that this generation will not have the same opportunities for exploring untraveled routes that our parents’ generation (and, indeed, the founders of Lonely Planet) did. Globalization and cheap airfares have made that impossible. This doesn’t mean that there are not real and “authentic” experiences to be had – they just might look different than what we originally anticipated. What needs to stop is the idea that somehow poverty and brutal regimes constitute authenticity.