Is Anything Authentic Anymore?

Have you ever been to a tourist trap or a location with so many people that the entire trip felt pointless or disappointing? Maybe you walked into a local shop only to find it full of cheap products purchased from Amazon or international brands with no connection to the location. Perhaps you went sightseeing only to find a line of people waiting to take selfies or that the place was now essentially a theme park. Is an authentic travel experience possible anymore?

Tourism was once advertised as a means to escape the stress and commodification of daily life by immersing yourself in someone else’s world to engage with unique experiences. However, with the rise of mass tourism and social media, we have entered a world of hyper-commodified travel. Entire cities are characterized only by the top 10 selfie backdrops or by the Instagram food trend of the week. 

Wikipedia Can you guess where?

This commodification makes it cheaper and easier to get the perfect Instagram picture, reinforcing the destination’s dominant narrative for the next visitor. It’s as if tourism has lost any intrinsic connection to the destination, and that travel is no different than purchasing a designer handbag. The specific destination is irrelevant, and any place that generates likes will suffice. The result is that popular destinations sacrifice authenticity to engage with modern tourism, sacrificing their identity and becoming “tourist traps” or “historical theme parks.”

I will argue here, though, in favor of taking a step back to examine the big picture. While the negative impacts of mass tourism are genuine, this notion of “authenticity” never existed for most people. The focus on creating authentic experiences is misguided simply because most people don’t care if an experience is authentic. Travel has always been a way for most people to signal wealth and status. Tourist traps are as old as tourism, and for many, they represent the authentic travel experience. Authenticity is only relevant insofar as it aids in the signaling process. 

Immersing in the destination is the core of the travel experience for me and a few others. I fall into the category of “special interest” tourists and actively seek authentic, traditional, or unique experiences in my travel plans. Such activities create immersion and enhance my knowledge of the destination. This kind of tourism represents anywhere from 1-10% of the overall tourism market, and authenticity may play an important role (Mckercher and Chan 2005, Ramkissoon and Uysal 2011). However, this market is vanishingly small and is irrelevant from a policy perspective. As a result, we have to look at the relationship between authenticity and mass tourism.

When is something Authentic?

Defining authenticity in terms of travel is a tricky research topic, and numerous authors have dived into the subject, most famously by the philosopher Heidegger in 1926. The seminal, though not the first work on authenticity in tourism, is a theoretical review by Ning Wang in 1999. Authenticity is a philosophical construct resulting from how we perceive our surroundings, so it is challenging to quantify meaningfully. Some follow-up studies used survey data to try and establish a foundation for our understanding (Taylor 2001, Reisinger and Crotts 2010, Turner 2017, Ramkissoon and Uysal 2018, Karagöz and Uysal 2022), but our data is still relatively weak.

Working towards a definition, we first have to limit the scope of analysis and differentiate between tourism and leisure travel. Leisure travel focuses on single destinations in an isolated environment, such as a resort or cruise ship. It also focuses on local destinations for short durations, maybe to a spa, beach or amusement park. The goal of leisure travel is relaxing in a complete break from daily life, and since leisure is intrinsic to the individual, it is always authentic. Authenticity is only important as long as the hot springs are authentically hot.

Though it’s not often discussed explicitly, most research concerns tourism, which originated in the 19th century as a form of conspicuous consumption by the wealthy. Stated travel intentions often included self-actualization, independence, and exposure to new cultures, much like today. The real point, though, was to be seen traveling by others. The difference from leisure trips is that traveling was the point rather than simply a means to an end. Tourist trips can include leisure, but they are longer and usually visit many destinations, often with specific objectives in mind. 

Florence cityscape at night
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel A rooftop bar on late summer evening overlooking Florence is a popular place to be seen.

What about myself, then? I have no peer group that would be impressed by my travels, nor do I have an interest in leisure travel. My authenticity-oriented exploration of my destination may fall into the category of leisure travel and the apparent desire for uniqueness. Karagöz and Uysal, in their 2022 article, emphasize the psychology of ‘uniqueness’ in special interest tourism. In this instance, authenticity is about escaping the commodification of everyday life and is thus a form of self-actualization. It’s about experiencing something that cannot be repackaged and sold on Amazon and discovering the “authentic self.” Thus, in this case, authenticity is essential in the travel process (Taylor 2001).

Remember, though, that I represent a tiny minority. Authenticity plays an overstated role in the travel intentions of many tourists but seems to play only a secondary role in reality. To understand this difference, we need to break down authenticity into its constituent parts, as described by Wang 1999.

  • Objective or Object Authenticity refers to the actual provenance of an object or experience. For example, is a Roman coin on display really Roman, or is it a replica?
  • Constructivist authenticity refers to the perceived provenance of the object or experience. Does a tourist at a museum believe the Roman coin to be real? If they do, then the coin is authentic. 
  • Deconstructivism rejects the notion entirely. Does it matter to the tourist if the coin is real or not? Authenticity is essential for the historian, but as the average tourist has no way of determining its authenticity, it doesn’t exist. 
  • Existential authenticity refers to an emotional state in the viewer activated by tourism. The coin is authentic for a tourist if it triggers a deep connection to the past. In other words, an experience is authentic if it enables an individual to uncover their true self or generate dopamine via likes on Instagram.

The literature generally considers objective and constructive authenticity irrelevant for most tourists. Obvious exceptions include religious pilgrims or war veterans visiting battlefield sites. In these cases, travel makes no sense if the tourist does not perceive some authenticity in the destination. However, most people’s connections to destinations are based on mental images constructed chiefly via social media. The implication is that if authenticity matters at all in tourism, it will be of the existential kind.

Even if objective authenticity is not relevant per se, it can still be a precursor for existential authenticity at heritage sites. That is, a monument may be necessary to generate pictures on Instagram to build an intention to travel, but generally is not required (Karagöz 2022, Wang 1999).

Challenging Authenticity

I have two arguments that authenticity doesn’t matter to the average tourist. The first and most obvious point is that tourism remains a signal for wealth and status. The goal is a selfie backdrop, not self-actualization. If authenticity matters, it’s because it aids in the signaling process. 

The second point is that most tourists don’t want authenticity. The difference between tourism and leisure is a fine line. Both are often part of the same package, and most tourists travel in an isolated bubble on a bus with travelers from the same country. They want to relax and be comfortable. Objective authenticity can disrupt this, e.g., with different and undesirable food. Thus mass tourism may even avoid authentic experiences. In other words, most tourists are only interested in living their regular life, eating the same food they usually do, but with the ability to get that Instagram picture.

The policy implications of this narcissistic and extractive form of tourism are important. Immersive, adventure or existential tourism represent only a small portion of travel flows, which makes them somewhat irrelevant. The question is, why are we concerned with authenticity if it’s only relevant to a small group of people? Indeed, we may devote too much effort to preserving authenticity than makes economic sense.

Quantifying Authenticity

The quantification of human emotion and perception of reality is a complicated topic. Most of the literature relies on survey data collected from tourists after a trip. Problems with survey data are abundant, e.g., the same person might give different answers depending on how they feel at the time, or slight changes to the question might dramatically increase the variance in the replies. Good survey design requires experience, a team of experts, and repetition, none of which I have access to.

Instead, I can attempt to measure the objective authenticity of a destination, for example, with statistics regarding the historical nature of the destination. I can use this data to examine my hypothesis that objective or constructive authenticity affects tourist flows via its value as a signal for conspicuous tourism. In other words, pristine natural beauty or a world heritage site increases tourist volumes by providing an attractive selfie backdrop.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel These buildings in the Limburg Fish market are all technically original, dating from the 13th-15th centuries, but their appearance today is the result of significant renovation in the past century. Does this count as authentic?

I have two metaphorical examples to illustrate this point. The first is an observation that tourist volumes appear to be influenced by some intrinsic properties of a specific location. Paris is the world’s most popular tourist city, so if a selfie with the Eifel Tower did not require authenticity to garner likes, cities worldwide could build Eifel Tower replicas. Paris would fall in tourist rankings. As this has not happened, the Eifel Tower possesses objective authenticity that continues to attract people to Paris. 

In my second example, consider the Ship of Theseus, the boat of the legendary Greek Hero Theseus. His boat is repaired slowly until no part of the original remains. So at what point is the boat no longer “authentic”? The answer to this question will depend on who you are. An archeologist would consider the authenticity of each component separately, a historian may believe the boat is inauthentic if Theseus never used it once repaired, and a tourist probably doesn’t care either way. Given that the ship was once objectively authentic, its current state is sufficient to attract guests to a museum or frame a selfie. 

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Chicken Market in Frankfurt is a complete reconstruction of a plaza destroyed in WW2. Only some of the buildings are accurate reproductions, but how many tourists will care?

A more post-modern example is Disney Land, an entire city of imagined realms brought to life. As Diagon Alley from Harry Poter exists only in the imagination, authenticity is entirely arbitrary, and few people have any issue with how authentic it appears to them. However, we should be careful here, as Disney Land is a leisure destination for many people, and its authenticity concerning conspicuous tourism is impossible to differentiate.

Next Steps

The following article in this series will look at the relationship between tourist flows and the level of historical preservation in German cities. Old architecture is a good proxy for objective historical authenticity, which may carry over into the tourist experience. As German cities were largely reduced to rubble in the Second World War, we have a lot of variance in the level of preservation which may provide some interesting results. 

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Sources

Heidegger M. 1927. Being and Time. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Karagöz, D., & Uysal, M. (2022). Tourists’ Need for Uniqueness as a Representation of Differentiated Identity. Journal of Travel Research, 61(1), 76–92. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047287520972804

Mckercher, B., & Chan, A. (2005). How Special Is Special Interest Tourism? Journal of Travel Research, 44(1), 21–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047287505276588

Ramkissoon H., Uysal M. S. 2011. “The Effects of Perceived Authenticity, Information Search Behavior, Motivation and Destination Imagery on Cultural Behavioral Intentions of Tourists.” Current Issues in Tourism 14 (6): 537–62.

Ramkissoon H., Uysal M. S. 2018. “Authenticity as a Value Co-creator of Tourism Experiences.” In Creating Experience Value in Tourism, 2nd ed., edited by Prebensen N. K., Chen J. S., Uysal M. S., 98–109. Wallingford, UK: CABI.

Reisinger Y., Crotts J. C. 2010. “Applying Hofstede’s National Culture Measures in Tourism Research: Illuminating Issues of Divergence and Convergence.” Journal of Travel Research 49 (2): 153–64.

Turner, B. S. (2017). The Authenticity of Heritage Sites, Tourists’ Quest for Existential Authenticity, and Destination Loyalty. Sociology, 56(8), 189–217. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038590024002002

Taylor J. P. 2001. “Authenticity and Sincerity in Tourism.” Annals of Tourism Research 28 (1): 7–26.

Wang N. 1999. “Rethinking Authenticity in Tourism Experience.” Annals of Tourism Research 26 (2): 349–70.

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