When did “Tourist” Become a Dirty Word?
“I mean it’s great that you’ve seen some art and all, but Park Güell isn’t the real Barcelona experience. It’s just a tourist attraction – there’s nothing authentic about it.”
That was the last straw. That overworked and unsolicited condemnation of my magical day traipsing up hills to see the beautiful, unfinished city that Gaudi created was the absolute last straw on the pile of crap I’d heard come out of fellow travellers’ mouths.
Too often, a certain type of traveller spends too much time focusing on locating, experiencing and lauding an “authentic” travel experience. What is it that these travellers are really seeking out? The traditional? The unique and original story? The opportunity to prove to themselves and to others that they are a “citizen of the world” who collects the exoticism of their worldly ventures, breezing effortlessly through multi-cultural interactions like a true local?
Many a time, my insistence on visiting museums or snapping shots of distinguished architecture has been deemed by my peers to be far too touristy to qualify as a real worldly experience. My experiences are dismissed as trivial, my understanding of foreign culture minimal and my status as a “world traveller” laughable. What I fail to understand is, barring those spent inside the four walls of a resort that could be located in either Cancun or Calgary for all they know, how any travel experience could be considered not real?
What is an authentic travel experience?
If we’re talking about the “authenticity” of an experience, according to the great minds at Merriam-Webster, “authenticity” is “the quality of being authentic,” which then of course leads you to the word authentic itself, meaning “of undisputed origin; genuine”. So let’s break that down. What could be more genuine than the warmth and kindness of local people, the art created with passion and displayed for the world to admire, the history painstakingly retold for the passing voyager to learn from? What could be of more undisputed origin if not the buildings they’ve created, the shops they run, the clothes they wear?
The truth is that a world traveller would want to have a valuable experience in which they can learn and connect and understand. But that is something completely different – what we’re talking about here is not cultural relativism, but rather the condescending assumption that for an experience to be valuable or culturally illuminating, it must come packaged in a way that renders it exotic enough to seem “authentic” to this particular type of traveller.
The other truth is that across class and race and sex and every other societal divide, it is impossible to delineate one sole idea of “authenticity” in any society or culture. So how can we, the traveller, assume we can tap into such an imagined entity?
The final truth is that authenticity is bullshit and the search for the authentic travel experience is a pathetic excuse to show that the traveller is culturally sensitive, unique, independent and educated enough to experience time in another place without relying on façade, like resorts or sheltered group tours. They’re “one with the people,” they “understand the true [insert foreign location here]”.
There are only our own experiences, our own interactions from which we can even begin to piece together the intense complexities of any place or culture. Instead, appreciate each facet as a part of a whole that is not defined by its undisputed origin or genuineness, but rather by its amazing capacity for change, growth, and life. And appreciate your own experiences in the face of such vastness – seek out all experiences.
Cover by Rona Keller