Is there an authentic travel experience?

With Japanese tourists sinking into depression because a destination failed to meet their expectations, psychiatric diagnoses, such as the Paris syndrome, have made the quest for an authentic tourist experience almost compulsory. After all, it has been observed that many of the heavily over-touristed places, such as Prague, Venice or Amsterdam, can feel inauthentic. But isn’t the feeling of inauthenticity in such places in itself an authentic experience? What is an authentic tourist experience anyway?

The quest for authenticity in tourist experience is not new. There were the flâneurs – the 19th century city walkers and observers of Parisian society. And there were the Grand Tourists, usually young aristocrats who from the 17th to the mid-19th century traversed Italy in search of arts and culture. Authenticity of tourist experience has also been medically diagnosed in the past. There was Stendhal syndrome which denoted a psychosomatic disorder when an individual was exposed to excessive art viewing. And there was Jerusalem syndrome – a religious overdose triggered by an emotional visit to the city of Jerusalem.

These examples suggest that authenticity in tourist experience is only achieved through exposure to novelty or culture shock. And yet one can argue that an authentic tourist experience is a contradiction in terms. When places or experiences are discovered and populated by tourists, they ultimately change by the demands of tourists to reflect tourists’ expectations. This is not unlike gentrification when deteriorated but authentic urban neighbourhoods are transformed by an influx of more affluent residents and ultimately conform to the new residents’ aesthetic tastes.

Nowadays – and from my own traveller’s perspective – the often compulsive search for an authentic tourist experience is a form of escapism from the mundane realities of daily life. Even then, what makes for an authentic tourist experience will differ from one person to the next – from eating at local restaurants or homestays with local families to seeking out adrenaline-rush activities through extreme sports or visiting war-torn conflict zones.

The purpose of such tourism similarly varies from immersing oneself into authentic local lifestyles, customs and culture or searching for an in-depth understanding of one’s destinations to consciously avoiding heavily touristed places in favour of ones still waiting to be discovered and gradually overtaken by mass tourism. In all of this, there is a sense that travellers are no longer satisfied with package holidays organised by a travel agent with arrangements for transport, accommodation and activities at an inclusive price.

As someone who will always prioritise authenticity in my travel experience, I can readily attest to the excitement of having a special place all to myself as I did when I explored the ancient Meroë pyramids in Sudan or the oddity of being the only foreign tourist in a sea of locals in Pakistan. When one believes one is getting an authentic tourist experience in such a setting, it does not even matter whether it is entirely spontaneous or staged and anticipated through pre-travel preparation and research.

Whatever authenticity in tourist experience ultimately means, it is surely becoming an increasingly valuable commodity in the tourism industry. Just as authentic tourism is essentially an oxymoron, it may soon happen that all inclusive package holidays will only take us to the scenes of unfolding natural disasters or that immersing oneself into someone else’s daily reality will only mean toiling in sweat shops or sleeping rough in the street.