Can We Ever Agree On Authenticity?

MikeachimThe Everyday22 Comments

“Authentic travel”. Buzz-phrase of a generation. We’re all in search of it. The travel industry is obsessed with it.

What a shame we have no idea what it actually is.

Here’s an advert you’ll never see.

Join us for the fauxcation of a lifetime!

Live exactly like the locals don’t, enjoying the ultimate in artificial, predictable experiences laid on entirely for your benefit.

You’ll come away so unchallenged it’ll be like you never left home!

Why put your cash in the hands of fickle fate when we can guarantee you a counterfeit travel experience by your rules?

That’s surely worth paying extra for!

It’s almost too easy. Defining what isn’t “authentic” is a lot easier than deciding what is. We all know a cheapening travel experience when we have it. We feel it. The tacky, lazy, fraudulent side of modern life we know and hate so well.

So is authenticity the opposite of modernity?

No – it can’t be. We know travel is a form of escapism, but where can we escape to? A perceived goal of authentic travel is, in the words of Pam Mandel, “the perfect interaction with the culture we’re visiting”. But whatever remote corner of the world greets our feet, it’s the first decade of the 21st Century. Wherever we go, it’s all modern.

Maybe that sounds crazy. What about the honest-feeling traditions we encounter around the world – the old ways of doing things that we fall so in love with at first sight? Yep, they’re modern too…and the fact you’re seeing them at work means they’re successfully modern. Putting aside the enormously tricky ethical issues for a second – if you’re watching ‘traditional culture’ reenacted in front of you, it’s an invention. It might be largely accurate, it might be 99% fiction, but it’s redesigned for now.

Here’s a personal example. Pick your way through thoroughly modernised (and thoroughly broke) modern Greece and you’ll find the ancient theatre of Epidaurus – a stunning hemisphere of cut rock with such skillfully designed acoustics that an actor can perform unamplified on the central stage and still be heard on the distant upper tiers. It attract hordes of visitors each year…but when I was in the area in 2007, it was closed to tourists. Why? Because it was being used. Every year, the Epidaurus Festival (itself part of the Greece-wide Hellenic Festival) runs open-air performances of Greek tragedies and comedies in the very venues they were originally performed in, two thousand years ago.

That certainly feels authentic to me. Why? Because it’s useful. It’s tradition in action, brought forward in time and made functionally meaningful for later generations. We like this when we see it. It feels right. The flip side of this instantly feels less authentic – the shows put on purely for tourists. It’s an act, and if we see through the illusion, it upsets us. As Keith Savage puts it, we “want to be a part of something without being the reason for it”. And when we know it’s all put on for our benefit, we feel cheated of our authentic experience.


Well, look at that. It’s the major problem with defining authenticity this way. For the people doing things we’ve so neatly labelled cheap and tacky, what they’re often doing is simply getting on with their lives. Authenticity is relative. It depends on who we are. When, quoting Pam again, we’re “both the cause and effect of this perceived lack of authenticity”, it suddenly smacks of artifice and cultural snobbery. Isn’t authenticity itself suddenly inauthentic? Damn.

But there’s another way to nail down authenticity – and it’s all about exploring that gut feeling inside of us. Andrew Potter, author of The Authenticity Hoax, defines it thus: “this hope or desire that what makes us happy or that we find enjoyable will also be morally praiseworthy or good for the environment”. It’s a personal ethical stance – and we certainly know when we betray those in thought or deed. That’s why we feel so bad in the face of a counterfeit experience. It’s the very core of us being compromised.

So here’s a working definition: an authentic experience is one that can’t be dictated to us. (Sorry, travel industry- but take heart, it’s the road to geotourism). A moral, ethical choice to do something in such a way that satisfies our core sense of what is good and right. As individuals, we choose to forego souvenir shops because we feel they’re a betrayal – or we shop at them, because we’re putting money in the hands of people who need it. We choose to eat street food because we believe in the rightness of doing so (perhaps secondary to the fact it’s cheap & tasty, but hey, it’s still a factor). We fly, or we don’t fly. At every decision we make our own authenticity…and maybe, somewhere down the line, we find we all agree on certain things, and we know exactly why.

Until then, let’s agree we don’t know what “authenticity” means.

That feels the right thing to do.

Images: HBarrison and ryantron.

  • What an authentic post Mike. Get it? But seriously, you’re a great writer and this is testimony to that. I’ve always been intrigued by this whole thing of “authentic travel”, in which I see the principle being little different than “living an authentic life”. As if somehow authentic travel makes us a better person or traveler or that everyone else hasn’t reached enlightenment yet.

    If there’s something I’ve learned in the last year, it’s that travel is really so subjective and that it differs so vastly across cultures, genders, age groups, and more. A backpacker with no destination in sight who is living out of their backpack isn’t any better than the 9-5er who uses every hour of his 2 weeks of vacation time to travel. I’ve learned a lot about these differences and that at the end of the day, it’s about what fulfills you and brings happiness. That’s travel.

    • Mikeachim

      Charmer. :)

      Yes, that’s the thing about the term “authentic travel” – it’s loaded. It leads to words like “better” and “worse”. Then we’re straight back into the same pissing competitions that blight questions like “what’s the difference between a traveler and a tourist?”, ad nauseum. It’s a moral highground thing where the ‘answer’ is known before the question is asked.

      But the authentic travel thing is, I think, much more interesting at heart. Because there *are* things we all seem to agree on, even if we’re dreadful at actually agreeing on them in practice. And if we can possibly lift that away from the whole good/bad thing, then we can understand the Why of travel a bit better. But – lifting out the moral element? Incredibly tricky.

      Take the recent interest in “slum tourism”. That’s a real mire. Can a dispassionate debate be had? Probably not. (Should it be a dispassionate debate?…..Probably not).

  • Richard P

    I think the only way to really get an authentic experience of a place is to stay there long enough that you’re no longer travelling, you’re living. In which case, you have ceased to be a tourist, and we’re talking about something different.
    For my part I pretty much distinctly aim for the NOT authentic when I go on holiday. I WANT the 4 to 5 star hotels with a swimming pool, western style bars on the beach, being served my long island ice tea by pretty local girls wearing western pop fashion… perhaps in part thats because I’ve also done a fair bit of work related travelling. When you are in foreign place because you’re there to do work, thats the ‘authentic’ experience of the place, and when you’ve done that enough, what you want from your travel IS to be given all the luxury, just dressed up to look different.
    I’m not saying that this fact doesn’t stop me from doing cultural things, eating local food and making friends with people who live in the area. But I’m more than happy to reconcile myself with the fact that I’m not getting an authentic experience. If I want that, I’ll go and live and work in the place!

    • Mikeachim

      So, authenticity is a function of speed of travel?

      And you have a good point there. It’s a wrongheaded assumption that all travelers are seeking non-touristy perks and services. (If they were, then tourism wouldn’t exist).

      So, as a Brit expat who has been in South Korea for….what, a century now? Do you feel you’ve bonded with it in ways you never expected to? I know from talking to Jim that your spoken Korean is a thing of wonder – but do you find yourself thinking in different ways than you used to as a girly-haired archaeologist digging holes on remote Orcadian islands?

  • Taking Richard’s idea a step further, is there really such a thing as authenticity when dealing with another culture? Even if you move there and live there long enough to become a “local,” you’re not indigenous. I can move to Guatemala and live there the rest of my days and I’ll still be from Chicago. Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t be accepted into Guatemalan culture. I would hope to be. But there would always be an “otherness” about me.

    And Spencer makes a good point, too, about the experience of a backpacker versus that of a 9-to-5-er. It’s all subjective.

    I haven’t traveled extensively, but I’ll cop to wanting some creature comforts. Perhaps it would be more “authentic” of me to stay in accommodations other than a nice hotel, but you know what? I like nice hotels. I like my own bathroom. Stuff like that. But once I walk out the front door for the day, I’m perfectly happy to wander around twisty alley-streets if that’s what I feel like doing, or take in some museums if that’s where my curiosity lies that day.

    • Mikeachim

      If authentic is defined by being exactly like someone else, then we’re all doomed to an inauthentic existence. And scaling that up, we’re all tourists in other people’s lives, no matter what we do. So yes, if that’s the definition, authenticity has to be a crock.

      But I don’t think that negates the feeling. OK, so it’s not an empirical, essential quality that something has – we can’t measure in an objective sense how authentic something is. But we can in an emotional sense. In a subjective, relative sense. So what does that make it? Useless?

      I’d say not. But…it’s tricksy, all this.

      And being authentic to yourself is what I’m arguing here, I guess. So picking creature comforts when you want creature comforts – that’s authentic. Anything else would be artificial (artificially hard on yourself?)….

  • It seems to me that having an “authentic” experience whether traveling or at home is the same: it’s just a matter of you being your true self, and others being utterly theirs. I know that sounds like gibberish, but I think in our gut we all know it when we experience it.

    As for my own travels, I find that by simply slipping down a couple of side streets off the main tourist drag most anywhere in the world (from Bangkok to Cairo to Cape Town to New York) you’ll find the “real” hum of a place – quiet neighborhoods (with nary a single souvenir hawker) where kids play and the locals simply go about their day-to-day lives.

    To me, that’s “authentic” and that’s what I travel for.

    (and btw, don’t even get me started on the claptrap semantic nonsense of “geotourism” and its ilk.)

    • Mikeachim

      As twitchy as I am for supporting a feeling without defining what it means to me…I have to agree. That gut feeling is a good guide, especially for when something is awry that we can’t quite put our finger on. (But it’s vitally important to try).

  • Yes, as you said, we make our own authenticity. We are individual human beings with different perspectives and reasons and thereby different choices. I agree with Spencer that throwing around the term “authentic travel” (and many others) can imply a certain superiority. We should respect that travelers are diverse and their choices reflect their own needs or wants. When people are true to themselves, their experiences will make them happy, whether or not it makes sense to other more “travel-savvy” people.

    • Mikeachim

      Superiority is the big thing that makes me twitchy. It’s how “authenticity” has become so laden with values that “inauthentic” is now an insult, rather than an admission that an experience is meant to be artificial and not try to judge it on that (see Rich P’s comment, above). In fact, reading back my replies to comments, I’m guilty of equating “artificial” with “bad” as well.

      It’s messy. O.E.D., send us new words!

  • As exposed above, moving to a place will eventually reveal most, if not all, its authenticity. It’s why we have legends like the 3 year honeymoon, or the 7 year reality check for expats. Does that mean you can never get a grip on the real thing?

    While I think you can never know another country or another culture as a native does, I think it is possible to experience gusts of reality by simply not moving around too much. Short of the great nomadic cultures, it’s the need to see it all that is the traveler’s biggest enemy. Hold still. Watch TV, listen to the radio, try to read the newspapers, eat in places as tourist free as possible. That sort of counts out eating ever in Florence. Couchsurfing seems like a pretty good possibility, too. It reminds me of the ancient times before hotels when travelers moved at foot pace and stayed wherever they could find, ate what was offered.

    Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to live poorly or in the rough to be authentic. Every country has rich people and most people are living as well as they know how.

    You can look at a lot more these days because of planes, trains and automobiles, but you will see only what you are capable of seeing, and that, friend, is up to you. Surfers come to my house and instantly want to see Assisi, an hour away by car. They have no eyes for my relatively unknown part of Italy which has been inhabited since before Roman times. They have no interest in my neighbors whose ancestors were the umbri, even more mysterious than the Etruscans. They don’t discover the treasures of the ancient city or ask why “Plinio” is important to our history.

    They like my shower.

  • Cheers for the mention, Mike, and great work on this little treatise. It’s a slippery topic the pursuit of which says more about ourselves than of the world around us.

  • Authenticity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As Richard P says above, look for what you *want* from travelling, not what you feel others think you should do. It’s much the same as the assumption that poverty is more real than riches. Bullshit. Every person has their own problems, worries and aspirations. Who are we to decide whose is more valid?

    I could easily get very ranty here. I’m going to shut up now.

  • Andrea

    I love what Katja said. I liked this post a lot but I get really tired of this discussion in general. Caz Makepeace had a great post about this not long ago. It’s all real. How can it be anything but? I know what you mean about not wanting artificial experiences tailor made for the tourist, but things just are what they are. I can’t imagine that locals don’t act a little different when foreigners are around them. Whether that just means putting their best face on things or going out of their way to make you comfortable when they would never do it for another local stranger. How would you even know unless you speak the language fluently and are completely aware of local norms. What Richard said was spot on: go and work in a place (not at a hostel) and get into the day to day and they you’ll get a feel for what really goes on there.

    So yes, what you said…none of us knows what “authentic” means.

  • Nice insights! I never consider cities as unauthentic even though a city life is preety much what I;m trying to escape from, I think it’s in every traveler what can he/she describe is authentic.

  • Sounds like someone needs some Authentic Seacoast :) We’ve always used the Oxford Dictionary definition to guide our use of the word: authentic adj. 1a genuine 2b reliable or trustworthy. Perhaps it is just that traveller who needs to be authentic. From this perspective, everything you experience will be real.

  • Here, here! We fling our judgments in everything, including travel, and along the same thoughts as Spencer, I’ve learned that an experience is only valid to the individual.

    Sure, maybe I met a Russian or two wearing offensive harem pants and boldly shirtless nowhere near a beach. Their experiences are not worse than mine or anyone else’s. Just different from mine.

    If we must use that word “authentic”, I’d further suggest that it might be what feels right to the traveler. In the end, I’m the one I have to face in the mirror every day. Much like everyone else. Travel to your desire, and the overall experience can’t be wrong.

  • cj

    Dear Husband and I had a holiday in Portugal lots of years ago. It was only my second time ever abroad and we were on a package deal near to the Spanish border. Sated with the coast, we decided to seek a different experience, left the usual tourist areas and drove up into the mountains. It was glorious – I’ve never smelled anything like the pine and eucalyptus and clear air that we found. Carried away by the beauty of the “real” Portugal, we decided to stop for refreshment at a bar/cafe that clearly didn’t cater for the tourist trade. It was dowdy and fairly charmless. We rubbed our hands in glee.

    After choking down a can of Seven-up (having pantomimed lemonade) in record time, under the unblinking eyes of three hoary locals and their equally hostile dog, we slunk back to our car. Guffaws followed us. I can still feel the burning of my cheeks.

    I don’t know whether that was an “authentic” experience or just plain back luck, but
    I’ve been a bit wary since then, although I have to say that not once, anywhere that we’ve been, has this experience been repeated. In fact I only wish that we Brits (in the main) felt able to extend the same friendly hospitality to foreign visitors that we’ve been shown abroad. Apart from that cafe.

    To be honest, I’m usually so happy to be in a different country, experiencing different places and people and sounds, that I’m not overly bothered about authenticity per se. I think it’s possible to worry too much about such things.

    Interesting article though!

  • We have had a recent discussion about the same topic on the Local Travel Movement Linkedin group:

    And on the Local Travel Movement website:

  • “we make our own authenticity” is exactly what it is all about. What is authentic to some may not be the case for others. It is important that no matter what others think that you are true to yourself, as long as your experience satisfies you needs. Then I don’t see a problems with it.

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