How can we satisfy our desire for authenticity?

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There’s no shortage of travel magazines and blogs talking about how “authentic travel” is the best type of travel. Be a “real traveller”, not a “tourist”, they all say. Research tells us that millennials, that burgeoning group of 20-somethings with money to spend and the inherent right to travel, value the ‘authentic’ experience almost above anything else. And there have been many articles, both academic and in the media, that explore the nature and possibility of a truly ‘authentic’ experience. But is the quest for authenticity a realistic one and can travel companies ever really satisfy their consumers’ desire for authenticity?

First of all, there is the challenge of definition. For some people authenticity is inclusive — it brings travellers closer to the people and places they are visiting. For others it’s divisive — predicated on a perception of the ‘other’ and highlighting only the differences between visitor and visited. And it also depends on who is doing the defining. Safari operators have been selling ‘authentic’ Africa for decades, but for how many Africans are the Big 5 the realities of day-to-day life?

And, even if it is the realities of day to day life that you are after, sometimes an experience can be too authentic. A few years ago, while travelling in Swaziland, I participated in an ‘authentic’ tour of a hilltop village. We got there only to find the village deserted and its population decamped to the next door village (a hilltop away) for a funeral. Real people living real lives. But as far as our tour group was concerned, not in the right place at the right time. Some of the more vocal demanded their money back. It seemed that it was too authentic for them.

Experiencing the authentic in a destination is often done by eating the local cuisine, cooked by and for locals. As one of the greatest overlaps between tourists and local populations, the food/restaurant sector really is a vehicle for authenticity. But I will never forget a trip around China in the mid 90s, when, after ten days of eating the local cuisine (including 24 hours worth of China railway’s best fare) I was really very delighted to experience the newly opened McDonald’s in Tiananmen Square.

As with my experiences, the aim for many on their quest for authenticity is to live like a ‘local’ and experience what they experience. However, are travellers really willing to put their fate in the hands of people and places they don’t know and don’t understand? As soon as something is planned, it is constructed and therefore can’t be authentic. Take away planning and you lose control. Lose control and suddenly risks increase. And as technology and globalisation increasingly take the risk out of our lives (check out the Future Foundation’s Death of Risk theory), and time is at a premium, it seems that authenticity in travel may be increasingly more than we can deal with.

Perhaps, therefore, we need to look for authenticity in a different place.

As a student of languages for many years, I like to think that an ability to, or attempt to, speak local languages can go a long way in a quest for authenticity. And these days, there are some great apps (like Trip Lingo) to help in this endeavour (and a swig or two of the local drink can assist in this area too!). Speaking in the local tongue not only shows an inherent interest in the place and its culture, it enables you to connect with people. Early on in my Spanish travels I bonded with a waitress over the difference between ‘pollo’ (chicken) and ‘polla’ (something else entirely) — you only make that mistake once!

Back to Swaziland: with the same group we went to a candle-making factory. Nothing authentic about that, it was established by an Israeli-South African businessman a few years previously. We made candles alongside the workers in the factory. It was a hit! At last a ‘real’ experience. True, the candles were giraffe-shaped but that was as African as it got. What it turned out was special was not the authenticity of the place itself but the conversations and connection that the tourists had with those factory workers. The fact that it wasn’t really authentic — it could have been in Swaziland, Sumatra or Suriname — was of no consequence. It felt authentic because it came from within.

And that’s what authenticity should be about. Connecting in a personal way with the people or place you are visiting. A moment of shared experience. And it doesn’t matter if you’re also being a tourist on that same trip, staying at a luxury hotel or AirBnb, or sightseeing along with your ‘authentic’ activities. If a traveller feels an authentic connection then surely that is as genuine as needed. It cannot be planned and it cannot be sold in a brochure. As consumers demand more authenticity, destinations and companies need to facilitate these moments, rather than attempting to offer authenticity on a plate. Tech-savvy and worldly-wise millennials will see straight through that. As will the people they encounter on their way.

So what does being authentic while travelling mean to you? Does it guide the way you travel? Let us know.

Written by Olivia Ruggles-Brise, WTTC’s Director of Policy & Research.

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