The Ugly Truth About Our Search for Authentic Travel

authentic travel

Authentic travel experiences: these are what we all seem to be after when we go abroad. When exploring new locales and relaying our experiences to others upon our return, there’s often nothing more self-satisfying than talking about how authentic a particular experience was. I have written previously about how this concept of authenticity can feed into the status game that travelling sometimes engenders. But there is an uglier quality to our striving for authentic travel experiences, beyond the fact that such a search can be ego-driven.

On occasion, I have caught myself in a new country and felt a slight tinge of disappointment because I have, for one reason or another, deemed a place or an experience as inauthentic. Yet involved in such a judgement – and in many travellers’ judgements of this sort – there can be undertones of wanting new places to be a sort of human zoo. Our search for authentic travel can sometimes reinforce a feeling of separateness, whereby local people – and their homes, customs, and culture – become things to be gawked at, as if on display for the tourist. This is connected to the concepts of the tourist gaze and the commodification of heritage.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking, enjoying, and preferring travel experiences that seem – however we judge them – as ‘non-touristic’, but it’s important to be aware of how the search for authentic travel can degrade our view of the world and other people, as well as harm local communities.

Our Desire for the Exotic

Part of the thrill and excitement of travel rests in fantasising about, anticipating, and experiencing what we perceive as ‘exotic’. When we travel, we want to engage our senses with something truly different and foreign. But we do have to be cautious when it comes to our desire for the exotic, for the exoticisation of people, in particular, can lead to some disrespectful attitudes and behaviour on the part of the tourist. For instance, if you dehumanise others and turn them into mere objects of fascination or photo opportunities, there is a danger of being invasive, voyeuristic, impolite, and coarse in one’s conduct and interactions.

Such unpleasant behaviour may include disrespecting people’s privacy and taking photos of them without their permission. If you imagine a tourist visiting your own country, say a small quiet village, and behaving like they were in a theme park, we might deem this disrespectful. As soon as you view another country as a playground for your amusement and the locals as valuable only insofar as they improve your travel experience, you run the risk of behaving disrespectfully, thereby contributing to a poor impression of tourists. We can appreciate the exotic without exoticising others to such a degree that we forget the humanity and dignity of those we come into contact with. 

The Tourist Gaze and Authentic Travel

The ‘tourist gaze’ is a concept developed by the sociologist John Urry, explored in detail in his seminal 1990 book on tourism, The Tourist Gaze, which has since been updated with two further editions, with both including newer research findings.

Urry begins by drawing a comparison between the ‘medical gaze’ elucidated by the French philosopher Michel Foucault and the gaze adopted by tourists. In The Birth of a Clinic (1963), Foucault used the term ‘medical gaze’ (which he also coined) to signify the dehumanising way in which doctors viewed their patients, separating their body from their personal identity. The medical gaze describes the way in which doctors fit patients into a certain biomedical story, leaving out the non-medical material – the more human and personal aspects of the individual. A ‘gaze’, in this sense, is when we select what we consider to be the most important elements out of the data available to our senses. Foucault’s overriding claim in his book was that doctors are doctor-oriented, not patient-oriented and that, through their medical gaze, they create an abusive power structure. You can see this in the way that medical professionals control patients, talk above patients’ heads, and reinforce their sense of authority in the orders they give.

Urry believes that the tourist gaze is “as socially organized and systemized as is the gaze of the medic”. Moreover, I would argue that the tourist gaze, like the medical gaze, also leads to a sort of power structure – as alluded to previously, the tourist or traveller’s exoticisation of others can sometimes be dehumanising, in the way that a doctor relates to his or her patient. The tourist can narrowly confine foreign places and people into neat categories that satisfy his or her gaze, which is the desire for or expectation of certain experiences (i.e. I want this place and the people who live there to be exotic). The power dynamic is one where the tourist is the consumer and the place and people are the goods and services consumed. In comparing the medical gaze with the tourist gaze, Urry writes:

Of course it [the tourist gaze] is of a different order in that it is not confined to professionals ‘supported and justified by an institution’. And yet even in the production of ‘unnecessary’ pleasure there are in fact many professional experts who help to construct and develop our gaze as tourists.

The tourist gaze involves looking at different scenes, landscapes, cities, and towns with interest and curiosity. This gaze is influenced by the motivations we bring to travel, such as our consumption of pleasurable experiences, as well as our anticipation of experiences that are out of the ordinary. Urry also emphasises:

There is no single tourist gaze as such. It varies by society, by social group and by historical period. Such gazes are constructed through difference. By this I mean not merely that there is no universal experience which is true for all tourists at all times. Rather the gaze in any historical period is constructed in relationship to its opposite, to non-tourist forms of social experience and consciousness. What makes a particular tourist gaze depends upon what it is contrasted with; what the forms of non-tourist experience happen to be. The gaze therefore presupposes a system of social activities and signs which locate the particular tourist practices, not in terms of some intrinsic characteristics, but through the contrasts implied with non-tourist social practices, particularly those based within the home and paid work.

While there are certain variations in the tourist gaze, instantiated by different contexts, such as the historical and cultural, Urry does insist that tourism itself can be defined by some common features (nine, in fact), although I will focus on the few which are most relevant to the discussion on authentic travel experiences. For instance, Urry states:

Places are chosen to be gazed upon because there is an anticipation, especially through daydreaming and fantasy, of intense pleasures, either on a different scale or involving different senses from those customarily encountered. Such anticipation is constructed and sustained through a variety of non-tourist practices, such as film, TV, literature, magazines, records and videos, which construct and reinforce, that gaze.

The tourist gaze is directed to features of landscape and townscape which separate them off from everyday experience. Such aspects are viewed because they are taken to be in some sense out of the ordinary. The viewing of such tourist sights often involves different forms of social patterning, with a much greater sensitivity to visual elements of landscape or townscape than is normally found in everyday life. People linger over such a gaze which is then normally visually objectified or captured through photographs, postcards, films, models and so on. These enable the gaze to be endlessly reproduced and recaptured.

The gaze is constructed through signs, and tourism involves the collection of signs. When tourists see two people kissing in Paris what they capture in the gaze is ‘timeless romantic Paris’. When a small village in England is seen, what they gaze upon is the ‘real olde England’. As Culler argues: ‘the tourist is interested in everything as a sign of itself All over the world the unsung armies of semioticians, the tourists, are fanning out in search of the signs of Frenchness, typical Italian behaviour, exemplary Oriental scenes, typical American thruways, traditional English pubs’.

Summarising these three points, we can conclude that many people are motivated to travel because it involves the expectation of non-ordinary pleasure and unusual scenes to gaze upon. Urry, nonetheless, asserts that tourism is organised around offering people experiences that are different, which contrast with everyday life. The desire for authenticity is not at the core of tourism, according to Urry. But Dean MacCannell – Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Davis ­– begs to differ. Urry refers to MacCannell in his book, describing his position as follows:

All tourists…embody a quest for authenticity, and this quest is a modern version of the universal human concern with the sacred. The tourist is a kind of contemporary pilgrim, seeking authenticity in other ‘times’ and other ‘places’ away from that person’s everyday life. Particular fascination is shown by tourists in the ‘real lives’ of others which somehow possess a reality which is hard to discover in people’s own experiences.

I think there is, unquestionably, an interest in authentic travel among many tourists and travellers. (For clarification, I’m using the terms ‘tourist’ and ‘traveller’ interchangeably in this discussion, as the boundary between the two is unclear; after all, every traveller in a foreign country is technically a tourist. Also, trying to make a distinction between the two can be quite elitist in nature.) The tourist’s search for so-called authentic travel experiences may also have an egotistical aspect to it. Seeking out and collecting such experiences can lead to self-aggrandising beliefs about travelling better than others, as well as feed one’s proclivity to boast about one’s travels. Andrew Johnson, an anthropologist at Yale-NUS College, underlines that ‘authenticity’ is nothing to do with a country’s culture – it is all part of “the game of the tourist”. As the writer David Sze puts it, authenticity is:

a shiny label that the traveler pins on her experiences–a marker of Bourdieuian distinction, to prove that she is more knowledgeable, more adventurous, and more off-the-beaten track.

Sze also maintains that authentic travel is a myth, for there is nowhere – well, nowhere that any tourist would visit – that has been immune to the influence of visitors from other countries. Travellers create a fantasy in their mind of going somewhere free from the annoying influences of tourism, but every culture has interacted with another culture and has been shaped irrevocably by various historical, political, and economic forces. Why is it that we regard mass tourism in a country as a form of contamination, as ruining some ideal of cultural purity that we want to experience, but not the export of a different culture? The answer is that our notion of certain cultures is often based on idealised or romanticised images. However, a culture doesn’t lose authenticity just because it doesn’t live up to our fantasies. Tourism is just another part of a local culture, which is never something ‘pure’ or static; instead, cultures – by their nature – are diverse, hybridised, dynamic, and ever-evolving.

Given the way that places and cultures change over time, it may be meaningless to even refer to travel experiences as being either authentic or inauthentic. Aren’t all places and people real or genuine in their own right? As a counterargument to this suggestion, MacCannell does refer to travel experiences as being authentic or inauthentic but believes the tourist often fails in his or her quest to find the former. For instance, in his book The Tourist: A New Theory on the Leisure Class (1973), MacCannell introduces the notion of ‘staged authenticity’. This refers to the way in which local people and local tourist entrepreneurs construct ‘tourist spaces’, contrived and artificial backstages which are intended to give the impression of authentic local life but which have been set up, in advance, for tourists. Another view is that all cultures are, in a sense, ‘staged’ and inauthentic, since all cultures are “invented, remade and the elements reorganised,” as underscored by the anthropologist Malcolm Crick. It’s for this reason that Urry himself doesn’t see an important distinction between staged authenticity and what happens in all cultures anyway.

Regardless of whether authentic travel is a myth, tourists still nonetheless tend to deem certain parts of a culture as authentic, while seeing other aspects as inauthentic. And it’s the way in which tourists themselves define authenticity that is problematic. Travellers are inclined to label ‘authentic’ the places that are less frequented by other travellers and that have been untouched by Westernisation. Many such places tend to be premodern, poor, and rural. If this is the kind of authenticity that travellers want, then there is an implicit wish for ‘exotic’ people and communities to be undeveloped – to lack modernisation and globalisation – for the sake of indulging the tourist gaze.

There is something quite non-empathetic about being disappointed when visiting a local village in Laos because the people there have TVs, internet, washing machines, and eat Western food, as if all of the comforts and conveniences you enjoy back home spoil the value of a local culture. One could call this attitude the fetishisation of primitivity. Many travellers have an obsession with visiting places and people that make them feel they have travelled back in time, but this desire is usually all about the traveller’s experiential satisfaction and discounts the interests of the local people, who want to enjoy the fruits of modernisation as much as anyone else. Sze similarly criticises the traveller’s specific idea of authenticity because:

It ignores the parts of the country that is modernizing, globalizing and prospering. It attempts to freeze the essence of the country into a traditional, premodern past (even though this past is often constructed in the present). 

The fetishisation of primitivity also involves this idea of rural villagers living an idyllic life and being perfectly happy (or at least much happier compared to people living in Westernised and developed countries). This is part of the tourist gaze. And it is certainly a way of seeing that is limited and obscured by the tourist’s romantic outlook. To quote Sze again (as he drives home this point better than I could):

Equally excluding is the exaltation of the “noble savage,” where admiration is cast onto those locals “uncontaminated” by Westernization. We are tempted to say, “Look at these villagers, they are so happy and content as they live in harmony with nature and themselves.” But condescension underlies these labels, as we speak about the “locals” as adults speak about children. There is an assumed naivety hidden within that happiness and harmony, untouched by modern sophistication. These labels also ignore real problems that affect these communities, brushing them away with superficial impressions of “contentment.”

Even the seemingly harmless praise of the locals’ “friendliness” excludes. These stereotypes exclude individual volition–if a local is friendly, it is because of her culture, and not because of personal merit.

Urry’s concept of the tourist gaze has come under extensive criticism, with many critics arguing that he focuses too much on the visual. After all, tourists don’t just care about what they gaze upon when they travel, they are also interested in other sorts of experiences, such as doing activities when they travel, as well as the sounds and music they hear, the odours and aromas they smell, and the food they taste. All of these other experiences can also be permeated by a pre-conceived notion of authenticity. MacCannell is one such critic who believes Urry’s ideas on tourism are too narrow. But rather than saying too much emphasis has been placed on the visual, he believes Urry’s concept of the visual gaze implies a rather bleak vision of tourism. He states:

Urry’s tourist gaze, in the precise way he has formulated it, is a blueprint for the transformation of the global system of attractions into an enormous set of mirrors to serve the narcissistic needs of dulled egoes.

Interestingly, though, this description of tourism (from 2001) is quite prescient, as it does describe the way in which attractions all over the world have now become ‘grammable’, that is, worthy of being photographed and posted on Instagram, which in many cases is all about elevating one’s ego and travel status. It would, of course, be unduly cynical to characterise someone’s motivation for travel as being solely, primarily, or mostly based on the anticipation of social media approval, but there is no getting around the egotistical component of the tourist gaze.

If you genuinely want to travel for the purposes of self-development and broadening your horizons, then it’s important to be mindful of the effect that travelling has on your self-image, your attitudes towards other countries, cultures, and people, and on local people themselves. The issue with a lot of tourism nowadays is that it is based on the self-centred desire to consume authentic experiences, which can also end up causing issues in local communities.

MacCannell proposed a second gaze that involves a suspicion about the visual elements of the gaze, about the authenticity of what is being witnessed. But both this second gaze and Urry’s tourist gaze have been criticised for being too narrowly focused on the tourist’s experience and subjectivity, ignoring the experience and subjectivity of the host. Ethical tourism and travel must take into account the impact of tourism on the host cultures. And this is why it’s vital to consider the commodification of heritage, a feature of tourism that has affected many local communities in a negative way.

The Commodification of Heritage

The commodification of heritage is a concept that is closely tied to the traveller’s search for authentic experiences. It refers to the process whereby culture is commodified, with cultural expressions turned into ‘cultural goods’ that can be bought, sold, and profited from. The result is a heritage tourism industry. Tourists and travellers now pay local communities and local tour operators to give them ‘authentic’ cultural experiences, which carry a high value – perhaps the highest value – in the eyes of many tourists. On the one hand, this can be viewed optimistically since heritage tourism may help to bolster a local community’s pride in and expression of their culture and identity. On the other hand, there is a darker side to the commodification of heritage that warrants consideration.

The desire for authentic travel experiences can end up destroying ethnic pride and identity, as local communities adopt cultural expressions for the sake of satisfying the expectations of tourists and profiting in the process. Laurie Kroshus Medina, Associate of Anthropology at Michigan State University, wrote a paper titled Commoditizing Culture: Tourism and Maya Identity, which details a concrete example of this phenomenon. Medina describes how in the village of San Jose Succotz, Belize, local Maya populations discarded their traditional practices and customs. They did so because they are situated near the Xunantunich Mayan ruins, and following increased touristic interest in the archaeological site, the local populations began recreating traditional Maya cultural expressions, creating a ‘staged’ reality for tourists. A consequence of the commodification of heritage, then, is the pressure put on local communities to sacrifice their authenticity and preferred way of life in order to perform for tourists and amuse them.

In many cases, tourists’ expectations about ‘authentic’ cultures can contain harmful stereotypes about certain cultures (e.g. primitivity, perfect contentment, idyllic lifestyle, and agreeableness) and if local communities feel compelled to play up to such stereotypes to satisfy tourists, then a strange power dynamic and dehumanisation emerges. It should be noted, though, that only the very worst aspects of heritage tourism create these sorts of effects. Moreover, the benefits of heritage tourism cannot be overstated – such benefits include the stimulation of economic growth in developing countries, improved livelihoods and well-being for local populations, and the edification of tourists.

Despite the benefits of heritage tourism, if we want to be responsible tourists, then it’s crucial to be aware of the downsides of the commodification of heritage and make efforts to take the subjectivity of the host into account when we travel. Take, for example, the popular activity of visiting hill tribes in the mountainous areas of northern Thailand. In Chiang Mai, the second-largest city in Thailand, tour operators offer tourists the chance to visit the Kayan people, an ethnic group, also commonly referred to as Padaung (meaning ‘long-necked’). Kayan women wear copper rings around their neck, which make their necks appear longer, although they don’t actually elongate. The Kayan people object to being referred to as Padaung. They are also not an indigenous ethnic group in Thailand, so while many tourists may have the impression that they are experiencing an ‘authentic’ Thai way of life, the reality is quite different.

The Kayan people are Burmese refugees, who some say are being exploited in the name of tourism. At one level, ‘long-neck villages’ are homes and workplaces for refugees – but at another level, according to some human rights advocates anyway, they are essentially a kind of ‘human zoo’. Tourists come to gawk at and snap photos of the ‘long-necked women’, reducing them to human curiosities. If these villages in Thailand are, indeed, human zoos, then we should pause for concern, given the implications.

There is an infamous photo of an African child purportedly in a ‘human zoo’ at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium. She was part of a ‘Congo village’ exhibition that – while not advertised as a zoo – was certainly zoo-like, with people ‘on display’ and being treated like zoo animals. Belgium’s King Leopold II, who established Belgium as a colonial power in Congo, introduced in Belgium a colonial tradition that we now regard as human zoos. At the time they were known as “ethnological exhibitions” and involved indigenous people being taken from their home country and put on display in recreated villages. Human zoos had also been set up earlier in the 20th century for in order to entertain white Europeans and North Americans, in cities such as Paris, London, Oslo, Hamburg, and New York. We rightly regard such practices as highly degrading, repugnant, and racist.

Of course, hill tribe villages are in no way equivalent to these ‘ethnological exhibitions’, but it is important to be aware of how our desire for authentic experiences can blind us to the humanity and dignity of others. We must be wary about viewing local cultures and people as primarily there to amuse us, make great photographs, and boost our travel ego.

As we have seen in this discussion, our search for authentic travel has an indecent side to it. This impulse can, ironically, lead to a misunderstanding of a country, as the traveller sees and values what he or she believes is ‘authentic’ and ignores the complex reality of the local culture. Our simplified notion of authenticity and obsession with experiencing it can, moreover, lead to attitudes towards others that further advance separateness and dehumanisation. When this happens, the experience of travel is devalued.

It’s always worth questioning our desire for authentic travel and what we mean when we say ‘authentic’, as the term is quite loaded. As travellers, we may also find that our experience of travel broadens when we give up the search for authenticity. By resisting the urge to label and judge, we can approach a country, a culture, and its people with more openness. Doing so will allow us to see the complexity and totality of a culture, which turns out to be far more fascinating than the little conceptual boxes many of us squeeze certain cultures and people into.

If one of the primary aims of travel is to connect with others, understand a culture, and realise our common humanity, then it is best that we do away with narrow and egotistical notions of authentic travel.


  1. Katy
    November 12, 2021 / 8:56 am

    Brilliant. Came across your article as I am publishing a similar opinion piece on my Italy travel podcast. I’ve been finding it difficult to express what you’ve articulated here so well – probably because I’m trying not to offend anyone. You’ve given me the kick up the butt to get over that. Keep up the great work. PS Also enjoyed your piece on travelers and tourists.

    • Sam Woolfe
      November 12, 2021 / 10:36 am

      Thanks, Katy. It is a delicate subject to broach, but an important one to bring up I think, so it’s great to hear you’ll be addressing it as well on your podcast.

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