The Dark Side of Authentic Travel

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.


And just because that post got a little too serious, here’s a picture of me trying to look like an authentic Azeri bride

15 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Authentic Travel

  1. Interesting and insightful. I have not travelled so did not realize and could not have commented on “authenticity in travel”. But it makes sense! (Btw, do Azeri brides typically have such a woebegone expression??)

  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog entry so much, Ruth. Have you ever read Claude Lévi-Strauss’ works, or are you familiar with them at all? I think you’d enjoy.

    The ethnomusicologist side of me has always been preoccupied with the concept of authenticity. My goal as a music educator was to provide my students with “authentic” music-making experiences. In order to be culturally sensitive, they have to be — right? Telling them we’re going to play authentic Hawaiian music and then presenting some stereotypical tourist hack of it hardly seems to be doing the culture justice.

    However, the more I read and thought and read and thought and questioned what authenticity meant, I kept running into writers and thinkers who seemed to make a case for its non-existence. To truly have an authentic experience, they would claim, one requires a pre-existing emic view of the cultural practice or experience being investigated. One needs a implicit understanding of so many culturally-specific nuances to understand the authentic experience, it hardly seems possible to remediate an entire lifetime of experiences in order to become a culture insider of another’s culture.

    The problem is that it is impossible to have anything but an etic view of these foreign places that are so kind to host our authentic curiosities. There’s no getting around the fact that we are culture outsiders. The fact that we have even left a culture to visit another in a quest for authenticity automatically excludes us from objectively experiencing what we search for. There is a selection bias in our thinking and our experiencing and our feeling that puts our understanding in a different area of any local.

    All of this talk of emic and etic understanding begs the question, though: if someone from a far away place came to your hometown and said “I want to have an ‘authentic’ Canadian experience” — what would you tell them? If the tables were turned, could we summarize an entire authentic culture experience of our own emic culture to a week, or a month, or a year, or even a decade? What would a Thai person need to do to understand all of the inner workings of the culture that produced us? I think the problem is scope. You might get a consensus of what an “authentic” Thai experience is from one person, but as soon as you add two people, you have conflict. If you add a soi, you have more disagreement, then a neighborhood or a city or a state or a country — suddenly, claims to authentic authority are thoroughly diluted.

    Perhaps all the big words dodge a bigger (and better) question though. Perhaps the problem is simply in etymology; what constitutes an “authentic” experience for one might feel “unauthentic” for another. Is it a feeling? If so, it’s so subjective that it seems pointless to argue about. Is it objective? If so, how do we measure it then? With an authenticitometer?

    I want so badly for authenticity to be real, because it helps in categorizing our experiences. Plus it’s cool to say we have had authentic experiences — we didn’t go to the Hard Rock, but we ate Soi food. But cultural experiences themselves are inherently messy and resistant to taxonomy — maybe some locals prefer Hard Rock over the soi food. Returning to the example of Hawaiian music, I finally realized that even the Ukulele was brought to Hawaii by the Portuguese, and the hula dances and beautiful Hawaiian Ukulele music were ultimately a product of colonialism. Even the authentic can be inauthentic, but can be reclaimed by a people to become the new authentic. Authentic, then, might not only be a function of place and people and culture, but also of time.

    I share in your desire to return to a historical anthropology where we can be the Dr. Livingstones of our generation… As you concluded, though, I’m not entirely sure it is possible.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Jay. I haven’t read Lévi-Strauss yet, but I’ll definitely put him on the list.

      You make some valid points about what constitutes “authenticity.” First, we as outsiders can never truly have an authentic experience, and, second, what constitutes “authenticity” anyway? There’s a measure of subjectivity inherent in its definition. Are there certain overarching concepts about which most locals could agree? Or is everything about it subjective? And where did cultural ideas come from in the first place (a la your ukulele example)?

      I think these further indicate the problems with our search for authenticity. We will likely never truly find it, and the idea that it can somehow be summed up by something as broad as “poverty” is ridiculous. It seems almost inauthentic to try to be authentic … 🙂

    • Hi Jay, I think I have an old broken authenticitometer in my closet. Maybe those guys on our soi that weld and fix random electronics will be able to fix it up.

    • Thanks, Jer. This was bang-on and a little mind-bending. By Pine’s argument, Lonely Planet et al have become masters at “rendering authenticity.” Perhaps the problem is that it renders certain experiences as authentic, but other experiences as less authentic. This rings false because if we are truly human than all our experiences are, by definition, authentic.

  3. Hey Ruth, good thoughts. I often struggle with this “authentic travel” idea when thinking about trips abroad. I struggle with the “touristy” areas of developing countries that are done up to make us feel comfortable when we visit a place even though outside the locked gates people live in quite stunning poverty. I feel extreme guilt when I think about traveling to developing countries for a vacation as I’m always struck by the poverty I encounter. How unfair it is that I can walk across a line and be back in my usual creature comforts while all the locals outside that gate continue to live in poverty but have our luxury rubbed in their faces.

    It’s interesting to hear you talk about this flip side of tourism, in attempting to have an authentic experience we normalize poverty and tyranny. I remember when I was traveling in South Africa, sharing an airport shuttle with an American traveler who was telling my friends and I she’d “done” the township thing while in Capetown so she didn’t really need to come back to South Africa to travel again. This was after my stint on Mercyships living in a community in Liberia with no electricity or running water and my friends and I were stunned at her ambivalent attitude toward the poverty in Capetown. Now you can actually take tours of the townships to get the real South African “experience”! Seems a bit ludicrous and certainly fits with your authentic experience dilemma.

    So how do we find a reasonable balance between responsible tourism without trivializing the poverty and the unfair political situations? I’m not sure I’ve found the right solution but maybe being uncomfortable about it is a good first step.

    • You raise a great point. While it is important not to romanticize poverty or regimes in our search for authenticity, it’s equally important not to simply bask in tourist luxuries. While I think the producers of Lonely Planet et al share some of the blame for creating the trend of authentic travel, I think they have done a lot of good in terms of getting people to go beyond the resort.

      So, how do we walk the line between being too “authentic” and walling ourselves off against the poverty outside our hotels? I wonder if spending more time in fewer places would be a step in the right direction. More time meeting locals, maybe picking up some of the language, and donating our time and/or money to local NGOs. This isn’t going to fix the problem, but I think it will help us to create understandings and connections that have at least an element of “authentic authenticity.”

      In the end, though, I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment about being uncomfortable. We should never get to the point where we are “comfortable” with the poverty around us (like your horrible story about the American tourist). I think at the same time, though, we need to recognize our own limitations. No matter what we do or don’t do as tourists, we probably won’t be responsible for bringing down regimes or alleviating poverty. Maybe we need to allow ourselves to dwell in that place of discomfort.

    • Chris, this is the second time I came aocrss your name, one used to be a friend on facebook and one is a friend of my sister-in-law. I am angry with life, with men, try to escape reality through tranquilisers and wine. I feel like getting rid of myself almost every single day. It is only my daughter and my dogs that keeps me going. I would like to know if you have sessions with people. I see you live in Johannesburg and so do I. Would you mind sending me information by e-mail, please. Kind regards, Karin

  4. Pingback: The Dark Side of Authentic Travel | The Facetious Farang

  5. I really like this post. I can also assure you that there are still places in every country that have still never seen Westerns, I’ve experienced this both in Thailand and in Indonesia. Therefore, it is very important that the first Westerners they do meet leave a good impression and don’t just introduce iPads and iPhones to all the village children still making toys from bamboo. It makes me sad to think that in a few years, there will be no placed that hasn’t been exposed to globalization yet.

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