Ask any traveler these days what kind of experiences they want when they travel and you're likely to hear the word "authentic" dropped more than once. Travelers of all ages, resources, and experience are looking for more engaging and meaningful experiences, and as close to 'the real deal' as they can get, whether they're immersing themselves deep in a culture for weeks or months, or planning their one or two precious weeks of vacation time. Travelers want more than the manufactured kind of tourism that doesn't feel real and even diminishes the cultural narrative of a place. Instead they're looking for ways to experience a new place to the fullest by making a real connection - a genuine, local, and authentic connection.
But what exactly does that mean? What is authentic travel, anyway? And is it even possible to immerse yourself or find authenticity for a few days or weeks?
After so many years of traveling, I still wonder what it means to travel authentically, how possible it really is, and how well I'm doing it.
Let me start with the term "authentic". What exactly makes an experience genuine and authentic? It really depends on your definition.
Is it the age of a place or attraction that makes it an authentic destination or travel experience? If that's the case, many travel experiences I've had based on fairly recent events in history wouldn't qualify as authentic.
And do we even want some truly authentic travel experiences? I mean, how authentic do you really want to get when it comes to exploring medieval Europe or a Jack the Ripper tour, for example? That's not for the faint of heart nor anything I'd want to experience. :)
And who's to say what's genuine or authentic, anyway? Having spent many years working in destination marketing, I learned a thing or two about this: the people who are telling you what's authentic and what's not are those folks who either know more about a subject than other people there, or simply care more about it. They can range from highly qualified and educated historians to local folks with anecdotal community and family history dating back generations. In other words, not everyone's an authority.
Local & Authentic: What's the Difference?
Are the terms local and authentic synonymous? Sometimes. And sometimes not. I've met plenty of locals who don't know a thing about their own community's history or culture, let alone where to steer a visitor to the most authentic place to grab a bite. If a local's favorite place to eat is McDonald's, is that authentic, or local?
I'll also never forget our first trip to Hawaii and my disappointment (my husband's delight) when I discovered the most popular local food there was SPAM! World War II brought SPiced hAM to the remote islands and today it's so beloved by locals, it's considered authentically Hawaiian! Go figure :)
It's hard to say what makes a travel experience genuine and unequivocally authentic since so much is subjective and up for interpretation. Historians and experts can offer their best educated guess, but how far are you willing to go to ensure you've found it? Then there's the issue of what feels authentic. And what feels authentic to your neighbor may not feel real to you at all.
How To Find Authenticity?
Some contend that authentic travel is a myth, that it's never really possible to experience true authenticity in a place that's foreign to you. Travelers are always considered to be tourists by the locals, right? Well yes, I do believe that we are all tourists if we don't actually live there. But despite this, and my belief that most native people in any given area really DO want to help you discover what their home is all about, there are ways to make those genuine and local connections that stay with you long after you're home, and thus make your travels as authentic as you possibly can. I know there are, because I've had them. And you can too. Here's what you can do:
If absolute cultural authenticity is important to you, do your homework ahead of time. Search online for travel recommendations from experienced travelers and bloggers who've been there. Read travel guides - Fodors, Frommers, and Lonely Planet are some of my faves. Stack the deck in your favor to help get as close to the authentic, local culture as you can get.
2. Personal Connections are the Key! If you WANT Genuine, BE Genuine!
- Show real interest in the people and local culture. Ask questions. Be a sponge and soak as much as you can.
- Find commonalities with people. If there's a language barrier, roll with it, laugh about it, and find other ways to communicate. Get to know basic phrases like Hello, Please, and Thank You.
- Limit your use of non-travel-related technology and be present in the moment. Take a digital detox and make it all about the learning experience.
- Listen to local music.
- Always - always - eat the local food, no matter how odd it may appear. There's no better way to make a friend than to eat their food!
- Make friends. Learn people's names and those of their children. Ask them about their daily life, school, family. Don't be afraid to talk about politics, or ask about religion. You'll be amazed at how much we all have in common!
- Be open to receive! If you're searching for a more authentic connection and meaningful experience, be open and authentic yourself! Anyone can have a deeper travel connection no matter how much time or money you have, simply by opening yourself up to it!
3. Remember, If It's There, it's Authentic, and it's OK!
We travel to see how the rest of the world lives, eats, and thinks, right? It may not always be the exotic adventure you're looking for. Sometimes what you'll experience in your travels is so familiar, it may be disappointing to find that in many ways, people in the rest of the world are just like us. The locals may indeed recommend their favorite restaurant to you, and it may turn out to be McDonalds. But the cool thing is, it's their McDonald's - which I guarantee will have some subtle differences than what you're used to! It's all part of the travel experience....it's no less authentic because you're experiencing it there.
When it comes to travel, there are as many opinions about authenticity as there are opinions about how, where, and why to travel. Are you a slow traveler or a country collector, competitively traveling without really seeing a thing? Do you only seek out new places or go back to a place and dig a little deeper a second and third time?
The same is true about the issue of authenticity. While I do believe it can help make your travel experiences more rewarding, the important thing is to travel...to experience the foreign, the unfamiliar, the unusual - even if it's "the usual" in a foreign place. Is the experience genuine? Is it truly authentic or truly recreated for your enjoyment? In the end, we all have our own ideas and expectations. Don't let the issue of authenticity intimidate or deter you from going and finding out for yourself what feels right to you!
I'd love to hear your thoughts about "authentic" travel. Are we too hung up on this, or headed in the right direction? Leave me a comment below.