Authentic Travel: What It Is And How To Find It
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 or 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.
What exactly does that mean? What is authentic travel, anyway? And is it even possible to immerse yourself or find authenticity in just a few days or weeks?
After traveling for many years in the US and abroad, I still wonder what it means to travel authentically, how possible it really is, and how well I'm doing it. I try my best to make connections using some suggestions I list below. But first, let’s talk about authenticity.
Defining Authenticity - What Is Authentic Travel?
Let’s begin with the term "authentic". What exactly makes an experience genuine and authentic? Much depends on your definition.
Does the age of a place or attraction make it an authentic destination or travel experience? The term “antique” is generally considered to be at least 100 years old if that helps. If age defines authenticity however, many travel experiences I've had based on fairly recent events in history wouldn't qualify as such. And do we really even want some truly authentic travel experiences? I mean, how authentic do you 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 and certainly nothing I'd want to experience! ;)
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 tell or show you what's authentic — in travel at least — are the people who either know more about a subject than other people, or simply care more about it as a volunteer guide or docent. They can range from highly qualified and educated historians to local folks with anecdotal community or 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 and that’s what they recommend to a visitor wanting to eat what the locals eat, 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 Hawaiian islands and today the food is so beloved by locals, it's used in their favorite dishes and is considered authentically Hawaiian! Go figure :)
Authenticity is Subjective
When it really comes down to it, 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? That’s for you to decide. Then there's the issue of what feels authentic. And what feels authentic to your neighbor may not feel real to you at all. IT didn’t feel authentic to me when we walked into a small surf bar in Costa Rica years ago and saw the place decorated in homage to The King of Rock and Roll. An Elvis shrine complete with velvet rope to remind you to keep your distance was a curious find indeed. But I didn’t mind. It was the most interesting beer I ever had.
How To HAve Authentic Travel Experiences?
Some may 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, because travelers are always tourists to the locals, right? I do believe that we are all tourists if we don't actually live in a particular place. But despite this — and my belief that many locals who live there really do want to help you see 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 have been there. Read travel guides - Fodors, Frommers, and Lonely Planet are some of my favorites. Check the online travel forums on Fodors and Lonely Planet. 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 in 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 beyond Hello, Please, and Thank You, like Two beers, please, Where’s your favorite place to eat?, and Where can we catch a cab?
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, and they will appreciate your trying it at least!
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.
Finally, travel slow. Wait…what?
3. Travel Slow
Over the years, we’ve learned more about the concept of slow travel and have become fans of traveling that way. Slow travel grew from the slow food movement of the 1980s in Italy when local chefs and food producers formed a movement against fast food. The idea is that when you travel, spending more time in one place leads to a deeper, more authentic travel experience. Get to know the local people, eat local food, and meet the producers, artisans, and farmers behind it all.
We believe in slow travel so much, it’s become a major focus of our business. But honestly, it wasn’t until we visited people in Italy who introduced us to actual slow travel tours, that the light finally come on. We realized we’d been traveling this way for years and loved how spending more time in a place made our whole experience much more special and memorable. Slow travel is the opposite of whirlwind travel or traveling for the Instagram shots, and you don’t have to have weeks or months to spend. If you have just a week, change your itinerary to include one or two places instead of “seeing” an entire country in a week…unless of course that country is the size of Belize or San Marino.
4. 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… same challenges and day to day problems. 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! One of my favorite snacks used to be Pringles potato chips (until I had to start minding my health and weight) but have you ever had Pringles in other parts of the world, like Indonesia? The locals flavors are seriously fun to try. It's all part of the travel experience....and no less authentic because you're experiencing it there.
And if your authentic experience ends up being a carefully-crafted tourist display, there’s a few things you can do beyond leaving disappointed. Talk to the participants or organizers if you can. Ask questions and try to find the right perspective of what’s typical and what was for your benefit. Start the conversation. Very often, locals find it hard to believe tourists want to see their real lives up close and personal, so they enhance the experience a bit for our benefit. Dig a little deeper.
Don’t Let The Issue Prevent You From Traveling
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 re-created 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.