Why Authentic Travel Is An Overrated Illusion

Authentic travel is hot stuff.

For many, authentic travel is synonymous with getting to know the ‘real’ or ‘non-touristy’ place. Wandering off the beaten track, avoiding stuff perceived to be touristy and mingling with local people, hanging out where they hang out.

old woman giving alms to monk in saffron robe as an example of authentic travel

They lament tourism as contaminating the culture of a destination, whilst lacking the insight that they are part of that ‘pollution.’ 

Authentic travel is simultaneously a goal and measure of travel. An authentic travel experience becomes a traveller’s status symbol, a badge of honour to be worn with a degree of smugness, evidence of superior knowledge and a more adventurous spirit.

Just take a look at Instagram. At the last count, there were close to 60,000 posts with the hashtag #authentictravel.

This is utter nonsense.

There is a fundamental problem with defining authentic travel.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines authentic as follows:

Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.

But is there only one, definitive ‘original’ version of a destination?

Originality needs to be viewed through the lens of time.

Over time, cultures evolve; they are not static. From ancient times through to industrialisation and globalisation, cultures have been in a dynamic state, absorbing influences from beyond their boundaries.

Because of this fluidity, it is difficult to pin down the ‘original’ version of a destination. 

Take my hometown of London for example.

Some may dismiss the theatre district around Shaftesbury Avenue as being touristy. Whilst it’s safe to say that many of the businesses surrounding the theatres are geared towards the tourist trade, theatre has formed part of the fabric of ‘original’ London since the 17th Century. 

The curry houses of Brick Lane owe their existence to an influx of immigrants from Bangladesh in the 1970s. Today, this part of London’s East End is a vibrant cultural epicentre, frequented by locals and tourists alike.

You can’t say that one of these areas is more authentic than the other; they are merely different representations of London.

Establishing what is ‘traditional’ is equally problematic.

Let’s use food as an example.

Many a tourist to Italy has been delighted to feast on ‘traditional’ Spaghetti Bolognese at a trattoria in Rome / Florence / Naples (insert city of your choice). However, Spaghetti Bolognese is not authentic Italian cuisine.

plate of spaghetti bolognese

A restaurateur in Bologna wouldn’t dream of serving spaghetti with Bolognese sauce, preferring tagliatelle, which holds the meaty sauce better.

A major flaw with the pursuit of authentic travel is that it is the visitor who is defining what this is.

Authenticity is a subjective judgement and one that is based on our own perceptions and previous exposure to that culture.

Let me ask you this. How do you know that the Pad Thai you picked up at the street market in Ayutthaya is more authentic than the overpriced one you ate in the restaurant at the Shangri La Hotel in Bangkok?

Authentic travel is often synonymous with the pursuit of experiencing the traditions of a place.

But things are not always as they seem.

Like many visitors to Sri Lanka, I stopped to photograph the fishermen of Kathaluwa, precariously perched atop crucifixes of sticks, their fishing rods dangling into schools of fish.

portrait of a Stilt fisherman, Unawatuna

This image, captured many times by many other visitors, looks suitably traditional and therefore ticks the authenticity box. Right?

Wrong.

Far from being an ancient tradition, this practice is a mere 80 years old. During World War II, some local men started fishing on the water to overcome food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots.

However, in the wake of the devastating tsunami, dwindling returns from the sea has meant that nowadays fisherman to rent their stilts to people who pose as fishermen for tourists, particularly during the monsoon season.

When I visited Laos, I woke at the crack of dawn to witness the morning almsgiving of Buddhist monks in Luang Prabang. An ‘authentic’ travel experience to be ticked off the bucket list.

It was a magnificent sight; hundreds of saffron-robed monks and novices walking barefoot throughout the town’s streets as they received offerings.

row of monks in saffron robes collection alms

However, the behaviour of some tourists was not so edifying.

Chasing that money shot by poking cameras in monks’ faces. Chatting whilst the procession was taking place.  

Not only is the definition of authentic travel problematic, but its pursuit can also objectify locals and degrade our view of the world.

There is a danger that the search for authentic travel can evolve into the pursuit of the ‘exotic.’ The more exotic the better.

Let’s face it. When we travel, we often seek out the ‘other’; what is different and foreign. However, if we are not careful, this can result in disrespectful attitudes and behaviour.

Local people are not merely photo opportunities or something to be gawked at. Dehumanising others risks being impolite at the least, and invasive and voyeuristic at worst.

Turning places into some sort of human zoo, separate us as travellers from local people, their traditions and their culture.

Authenticity lies within yourself.

Instead of trying to pin down the definitive authentic travel experience, perhaps we should focus on where we search for it?

The lazy approach to authentic travel is to tick off the prescribed ‘authentic’ experiences associated with a country: attending an Ethiopian tea ceremony, eating the best traditional Japanese ramen of your life, running with the bulls in Pamplona. As an alternative, why not create a travel experience which is authentic to yourself by embracing activities that take you out of your comfort zone or teach you something new about the place or about yourself?

It doesn’t matter if this is a ‘touristy’ experience.

One of the joys of travel is that you learn and understand more about a place and its people at the end of your visit than when you arrived. Ironically, museums, which are frequently derided as touristy pursuits, can be rich mines of information about local culture and history.

It is through knowledge and an appreciation of the diverse threads of a country, we get to understand it, not by forsaking the ‘touristy’ for the ‘authentic.’