Sunday, 8 February 2009

What is 'authentic' travel?

There's a new (beta) travel site on the block, According to the blurb, "It's all about discovering and sharing authentic travel experiences offered by passionate locals." They've got some interesting trips up there so far: from wine-tasting in the UK to photographing bears in Alaska. (The latter is possibly my dream trip. Although at US$750 a day, I'd better start saving now.)

The one thing I'm unsure about is the over-reliance on the word "authentic", which is plastered across the site. They are asking people to post their "authentic travel experiences". What exactly does that mean? Is it the same as striving to see the "real side" of a country? I've never been comfortable with that phrase either.

The Gecko Villa, for example, is billed on the site as "The real Thailand!" It looks like a beautiful place to take a holiday. It's intimate, it's tasteful, it's got traditional elements to the design, it's in a rural area. But does this make it "the real Thailand"? At £125 a night, I'm not so sure.

But this isn't just about prices. It's more about the constraints of labels. In trying to pin it down the real Thailand/Egypt/Tanzania, you'll inevitably end up chasing myths.

At its heart, Tourdust has good intentions and I wish them luck. They support responsible travel and want to encourage travellers "to think twice about the impact of their holidays". They also believe in working directly with local guides and hosts so tourism money goes into the local economy. (See also

Ultimately, travel companies and tour sites have products to sell. "Real" and "authentic" do that job quite nicely. What's worse is seeing them overused in travel journalism. "So-and-so discovers the real Brazil on a favela tour in Rio." No, they don't. They discover a different side of Brazil.

All countries have multiple identities - not just a dichotomy of the "real" (typically used as a synonym for "poor", "unvisited", "authentic") and the "unreal" (ie "more affluent", "popular").

Of course, the good news is this means that your ways of experience a country are limitless. Just think of all those different sides within every country in the world...