The Myth of Authentic Travel

When I first stepped onto Khao San Road, the main backpacker drag in Bangkok, I was a little overwhelmed. I had arrived after weeks spent cycling alone in the Thai countryside, winding through rolling hills, beside acres of fields filled with rice and corn, passing by bustling towns and cities without a single tourist.
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Khao San Road, Bangkok.

When I first stepped onto Khao San Road, the main backpacker drag in Bangkok, I was a little overwhelmed. I had arrived after weeks spent cycling alone in the Thai countryside, winding through rolling hills, beside acres of fields filled with rice and corn, passing by bustling towns and cities without a single tourist.

Now, I was suddenly surrounded by white people sporting colorful pants and big cameras. I could read all the signs. Shops sold t-shirts with comically mangled "Engrish" phrases. Night market stalls advertised braids and dreadlocks. Was this really Thailand? "Ah, there are too many tourists here," a tourist explained to me, "You need to go back to the countryside for the authentic Thailand."

I'm uncomfortable with the term "authentic". Years of sociology and anthropology classes taught me to not essentialize, not to try to fit a culture into a box. Yet the idea of "authenticity" is almost intuitive for the traveler.

We want to believe that the tribal dance in the village we hiked for two days to see is more "real" than the one performed in the restaurant at the Hilton hotel. We want to believe that the pad thai we had at a small town's night market is more "authentic" than the overpriced dish that tourists pay for on Khao San Road.

For the 21st century traveler, authenticity has become the goal and measure of travel. "Real" travelers avoid expensive attractions, preferring to wander off the "beaten track". They avoid the "touristy", wanting to see how the "locals" live. They bemoan tourism and commodification as "polluting" the culture of a place. "Don't sell us stuff", they say, "Give us the 'real' thing, the 'authentic' experience."


But what is "authenticity" exactly? As we excavate the term, we find that it is founded on particular ideas of what "culture" is, and should be. And these ideas are shaky.

Robert Shepard, an anthropologist at George Washington University, writes, "What is most commonly referred to as the tourist impact on Others is grounded in the unspoken presumption that these Others at some point in the past have lived in enclosed spaces of cultural purity, protected from outside contamination." In other words, if tourism is contaminating, there must be something pure to contaminate.

But in reality, there are no untouched and unchanging cultures. The world has always been in interaction. In ancient and medieval times, the Silk Road and sprawling empires (the Romans, the Mongols, the Han). Starting from the 16th century, imperialism, industrialization and globalization. Conquerors, traders, missionaries, adventurers. To say tourism corrupts local culture ignores all the changes that have come before.


It is important to remember that cultural change does not require contact with the West. Islam vaulted from the Middle East to India to Indonesia. Korean-pop is idolized across the East Asian sphere. When I overnighted in a Senegalese village a few years ago, my host had in his mud hut a small black and white TV, playing a Bollywood film.

In many places, regional influences are paramount. Through interactions such as trade and migration, even the most isolated villages will have been influenced by neighboring villages, larger town centers, and the cities of that country. Is Westernization "corrupting" while influences from other places aren't?

Through these processes, the world is increasingly intermeshed--with no country and no man an island. Each country, state, and city, down to the smallest village, is constantly changing with unceasing interaction with regional and global influences. How then to draw a boundary around a culture? We cannot, as each meld into and influence another.

The very idea that cultures arise and prosper through isolation is flawed. Erve Chambers, an anthropologist from the University of Maryland writes, "it seems just as likely that distinct, culturally identifying traditions have often developed as a result of processes of differentiation that arise from exchanges between cultures. In this sense, cultural traditions are constructed more from recognition of difference." Culture is only not formed through isolation, but also through interaction, hybridity and the construction of difference.

And if culture is inherently dynamic, we can argue that commodification does not produce a simulacrum of the "local", but is instead just the latest step of a never-ending evolution.

Culture not only changes with time, it also varies within itself in the present. That is to say, culture is heterogeneous, diverse, and hybrid. A country varies hugely within its borders. The city is different from the countryside. The lifestyles of the rich are different from the lifestyles of the poor. The beach-towns are different from the mountain villages. The experiences of one ethnicity are different from the experiences of the other. What authority is able to say what or who gets to exemplify a country?


As the boundaries and contours of culture are blurred, it is thus an oversimplification to see tourism just as an external polluting force working onto the community. It is equally valid to see tourism as an internal movement, driven in varying degrees by local stakeholders--local entrepreneurs, investors, government officials, and others. When tourism is driven by these local agents, who is to claim that the products are any less "local"? They are just another side of a heterogeneous culture.

Indeed, down the line, the products of tourism may be embedded and embraced into local culture--another step in the evolution of the culture. In Singapore, the Merlion is the mascot of the prosperous island city-state. Yet, this "authentically"-Singaporean symbol is just decades old, first designed by the Singapore Tourist Board in 1964 to use as the board's logo. Yet it has become to Singapore what the Statue of Liberty (which came from France, by the way) is to the U.S. (Of course, in many places, tourism's products are alienating and disempowering.)

Singapore's Merlion. Photo by fad3away, / CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It might then be possible to consider that Khao San Road, even as it overflows with tourists, is equally qualified to represent Thailand as the unvisited and unknown village hidden in the hills. Sure, there are more tourists in Bangkok and more businesses are oriented towards tourists. But, Khao San Road and the hill village are just different representations of Thailand, one perhaps with more points of contact with foreign influences, but each still a valid perspective of Thailand. It is by knowing all the diverse threads of the country, not shunning one for the other, that we get to understand it.


So, trying to find "authenticity" within a culture or country is flawed. What do we really mean when we call something "authentic" then? Digging a little deeper, "authenticity" derives not from the host country's culture, but is instead, "the game of the tourist," according to Andrew Johnson, an anthropologist from Yale-NUS College. It 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.

However, the experiences chosen are skewed. Often, especially in the Global South, the traveler will label "authentic" that which is less frequented by other travelers, and "untouched" by Westernization. These places tend to be premodern, poor and rural.

This is a problem: defining a country this way excludes. 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). In the words of my friend, Daniel Soo, "'Authenticity' is the denial of a people's privilege to their changing culture amidst changing times."


As we fixate on the traditional, we confuse modernization for Westernization. And we confuse Westernization for cultural destruction, ignoring the processes of glocalization, hybridity, and reappropriation.

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.

A more dramatic example of the exclusionary effect of the"friendly" label can be seen in Fiji, where Indians make up 40% of the population, but are practically invisible in tourist paraphernalia, which focus on ethnic Fijians. Indians, typecast locally as individualistic and competitive, run against the selling point of Fiji's tourism industry--"genuine friendliness", and are thus ignored and invisibilized. When we label a place or a people, we often become blind to the messiness that contradicts our perspective.


Village in the hills, Shan state, Myanmar.

So, what then? Authenticity oversimplifies and excludes. It assumes an unchanging, homogenous culture trapped in a premodern past. It ignores the diversity, complexity, and dynamism within the country. It ignores the parts that are developing, globalizing, modernizing--yet at the same time, equally representative. Authenticity is a box into which the traveler crams what he wants to see, while ignoring the complexity of reality. It is both distorting, and lazy.

Let's throw the box away. Appreciate all the diverse sides of the country without having to claim that any part is better. Let go of the preconceptions of the culture we might have internalized from guidebooks and mass media. Don't label. If we spot a "foreign" or "commodified" practice, instead of calling that experience "inauthentic," let's try to be more nuanced. Attempt to understand how this practice came to be. How it interacts with existing practices and people. How it might have been, or will be, changed, assimilated or rejected. Embrace messiness.

If we do so, perhaps even Khao San Road can teach us something about Thailand.

For more articles on travel, culture, and identity, visit David's new blog, Living Meanings.

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