What is authentic travel?

Authenticity is simultaneously the most talked about trend in travel, and the thing tourism marketers are most nervous and unsure about defining. The most common opinion from those I've spoken to in the industry seems to be that authentic is what you feel is authentic.

I.E. What's authentic to you might not be to me, and it's more about how you feel than something you can define. Both these things might be true, but it's not much of an insight to build a customer experience or brand around. Hard as it might be I think we need to try harder. The Oxford English Dictionary says - 'Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original: the restaurant serves authentic Italian meals every detail of the film was totally authentic'. Let's see if that works for an authentic tour of Italy. The hard thing is to decide what point in time to define as 'original' - should it be a two month Grand Tour of high culture from the 1700's; romantic Rome from the 1950's in Roman Vacation (with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn); or something on a Vespa (the authentic way to travel in Rome?)

Original Italy?
The 'original' way changes with every generation, at least, so how do we know which one is authentic? Would we choose the oldest hotels because by definition they are the most authentic as they are the most original? Some old hotels I know feel very authentic, others feel they have betrayed their past. Being the first is sometimes confused with being the most authentic. Verifying what is 'traditional' or not also creates problems. The obvious pitfalls are again, traditional at what point in time? Its become traditional for some people to eat a Big Mac in New York, it feels very American, but believe it or not it was not always that way. Also, who defines what is traditional? In some cases marketers invent traditions to sell something. For example, spaghetti Bolonese is not traditionally made with meatballs. That was invented for tourists.

It's tempting to say who cares if a few tourists are conned? Of course they might certainly care, if they knew they had been duped - or maybe they wouldn't and accept they were taking part in some cultural game loosely based around a truth? In other cases the original meaning of traditions can be lost as they are faked up by marketers for tourists resulting in a loss of heritage (although traditions have always been influenced by trade and changes in society as well as things like tourism). For this reason many have argued that local people - rather than the tourism industry or marketers - should be the custodians of what is 'traditional.' Of course people in a community often have different views about what is or is not traditional... Anyway, back to our definition. Do 'original and traditional' really help us understand what is authentic? Perhaps not greatly. Something that made sense to me, albeit in a different context was this -

The authentic self is the soul made visible. Sarah Ban Breathnach

When you read more about human psychology you learn about the 'protected self' - the barriers we create and use to hide our hopes, fears and insecurities from others. The 'unprotected self' reveals the soul and is authentic. What can we learn from this in tourism? Do the places and people that reveal most of their souls, who act in a unprotected way, appear the most authentic?

Letting it all hang out
I think perhaps they do, because they reveal a truth about themselves. For example, the tourism destination that admits a difficult past and tells this shaped its present and future feels more authentic than another tourist board glossing over anything than might tarnish impressions of 'paradise.' A local person who invites you to their home (bed and breakfast, home stay in Cuba or Airbnb) might be letting down their guard a little, and you might expect a more real or authentic experience with greater insights into local ways of life than staying in a chain hotel.

Of course the very act of letting tourists into your life leaves you vulnerable. Letting anybody other than best friends or family (and sometimes especially them) see how you live or understand your hopes and fears can be a little scary. Tourists tend to find the quest for authenticity addictive. Give them a glimpse of a religious ceremony or 'traditional' village ritual and they want to be in the front row (preferably filming it). For this reason not all cultural experiences are suitable for tourism. In other cases boundaries need to be set. Sometimes staging authenticity, for example creating a pretend tribal village - away from the real village - to demonstrate village life but protect a community from intrusion can be a good thing. Because of the vulnerability associated with it it's highly unlikely that any community or person will open up (acting in an unprotected way) to create an authentic experience unless they feel secure and fairly treated (and remunerated). This means the tour operator, guide or hotel must have an exceptionally good relationship with the community before the opportunity for more authentic travel is created for the tourist. They must be a responsible business.

So, in our experience at Responsible Travel authenticity is more about soul than it is about 'original or traditional'. Of course, it's a personal thing, but whatever you feel reveals the sense of a place or culture is probably the most authentic. If that's a Big Mac in New York so be it!

Authentic New York?
However, we think there is a very strong relationship between acting in a caring and responsible way and being given the opportunity for authentic experiences. Our customers seem to think so too. At a simple level it makes sense that if you treat local people right they will be more likely to share their world with you. The sense of wonder about different places and ways of life seems to me to be the essential emotion of travel. Finally, before we all get carried away too much by achieving authenticity and a sense of belonging (another tourism buzzword that Airbnb have made their proposition) it's wise to remember that we'll always be visitors in someone else's place. Remembering this is a good a place as any to start in experiencing authenticity.

Why not try one of our - dare I say it authentic - vacations yourself?

Justin Francis
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