What is Authentic Traveling? (1/3)

What is Authentic Traveling. Authentic traveling is largely perspective-dependent.
Authentic traveling is largely perspective-dependent.

Should we subject ourselves to danger and agony by taking that twelve-hour bus ride just because this is the way locals do it? Do we renounce popular sites just because it is on every tourist’s to-go list?

In our data-driven world, it seems that the amount of information available on a given subject is inversely related to how much we understand about it. Take traveling for example. Google “authentic travel experience” and we unleash 102 million results all vying for our attention and mouse clicks.

Yet, with this abundance of information, we still find ourselves confounded by the choices available to us. Should we subject ourselves to danger and agony by taking that twelve-hour bus ride over the mountainous border just because this is the way locals do it? Do we renounce popular landmarks just because we know it is going to be packed full with tourists like ourselves?

A reason why the subject of authentic travel is so mind boggling is because of its elusive definition. The Oxford English Dictionary defines authenticity as “the quality being made or done in the traditional or original way.”

But what is original and what is traditional? Everyone defines originality differently, reflecting their own values and expectations.

In order to take such diversity into account, we need a different definition:

Authentic travel is traveling that stays true to one’s intent and is largely perspective-dependent.

Upon the first glance, this definition seems to confuse more than it clarifies. What does it mean to stay true to our intent? How is it perspective-dependent? Why not define it with a particular set of actions, such as going off the beaten path, imitate the locals, eat exotic food, or participate in traditional rituals?

To answer this, we need to look at five ways travellers can misunderstand authenticity. Sometimes, in order to understand what something is, it is helpful to first understand what it is not.

After seeing examples of what authenticity is not, we will realize that authenticity lies in the eyes of the beholder. The best way to experience it is to pursue activities that truthfully align with our intent and perspective. And those in turn depend on our cultivation.

Myth #1: Equating Authenticity to Particular Forms of Traveling

Many believe that authenticity lies in a certain way of traveling, such as backpacking. They argue that activities like going off the beaten path or eating at neighbourhood restaurants give them deeper insight into a culture. They avoid other tourists.

While this reflects the beliefs of those who appreciates cultural insight, authenticity should not be equated to any particular form of travelling. Staying at resorts shielded from local reality may be authentic to a traveler who wants a place to unwind with friends and family. Not being authentic in a cultural sense does not mean it cannot be authentic in a social sense.

Even if we assume that authenticity is ultimately measured by the depth of insights, form is still not a limiting factor. Take a tour group as example. Many of them take clients on a fixed itinerary to excessively commercialized sites. However, instead of passively towing the official line, we could take a step back and engage with the tour guide on a personal level to gain deeper insight about his culture.

One could also observe, through visiting clichéd landmarks, how that culture chooses to deal with global tourism and contemplate how that choice reflects their underlying values. A change of perspective yields an entirely different result. And in this case, it offers us a glimpse of the culture at present instead of the past – namely, how modernization and commercialization form an integral part of that culture.

Likewise, many dining establishments similar to those we have at home tweak their menu and services to reflect local tastes, like McDonald’s wasabi McNugget sauce and its 24-hour home delivery in Japan.

Sometimes, it may be even more rewarding to look for those dissimilarities in something familiar and ask ourselves why those differences exist.

Of course, while McDonald’s can potentially offer interesting cultural insights, it is not to say that there are no better options. When we are at a foreign country, eating unfamiliar food is a good idea because it broadens our experience and knowledge. It is, however, not in itself a definitive gauge of authenticity because insights depend more on the mind and authenticity is, again, perspective-dependent.

Those different forms of traveling, be it backpacking or all-inclusive, are just means to an end. If the means serves the end truthfully, then it is authentic for that purpose. It is therefore difficult if not impossible to judge authenticity without being aware of what the intent of the traveler is.

And in the case that we are stuck with a particular mean that does not seem to serve the end well, it is always useful to try and change our perspective, like the tour group example, and turn an apparent cliché into something more rewarding.

Continued in Part 2 | Part 3



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