The notion of authenticity in tourism has been a matter of interest and concern for anthropologists. It has been studied from three theoretical approaches: Objectivism, Constructivism, and Post-modernism. Authenticity is usually used in the sense of genuine, real, true, etc. But, in tourism, authenticity implies not the real truth but a truth that the tourist wants to see.

To the tourist, authenticity may be something that the tourist has dreamt of. As Golf (2010: n.d), describes a scenario in his article, “Authenticity”, about how the people in the west bear images of certain places to have honest people, working on the earth honestly to produce honest products where there is no room for nuclear reactors, trade unions or traffic jams. The tourist imagines the past to be seen in the present. It is full of images of “primitivism, exotic tribes, and historical stagnation” (ibid).

The reality of such sites may have starkly transformed but authenticity, there remains something that is visualized and then seen by tourists and for the tourism business to thrive, such “authentic realities” are built. Let us now try to see how anthropologists have tried to understand authenticity in tourism.

The Objectivist Theory: This theory suggests that authenticity is free from the mind’s eye. It is present intrinsically in the object which is visited and is not connected to the notions of the visitor or tourist, hence authenticity exists as a factual trait. Boorstin and MacCanell, two American scholars, assessed this objectivist theory in the 1970s. Boorstin (1964) opined that the tourist always looks for the inauthentic object and is conscious of the fact that the host spot offers a ‘pseudo-event’. The ‘authentic’ is manufactured and hence is actually inauthentic. Boorstin concludes that the tourists in reality look for inauthenticity.

However, MacCanell (1976) disagreed and made his point that “the alienated modern tourist in quest of authenticity hence looks for the pristine, the natural, that which is as yet untouched by modernity”. He calls such tourists the “religious pilgrim”. They do agree on one point, that what tourists actually finally get to view is inauthentic.

The Constructivism Theory: In the Objectivist theory, one issue which was observed was that it viewed tourists’ spots and their cultures as constant and unchanging. This issue was tackled by another approach called the Constructivism theory. The main advocate of this theory in the context of tourism was sociologist, Erik Cohen.

This theory argues that authenticity is not physically observed and “is a socially constructed, negotiated concept and is not a permanent property of the toured object.” (Terziyska 2012: 90). Thus, different people can view an object with a different authenticity, based on her or his philosophy or way of thinking. Cohen presented a new term, emergent authenticity to describe how with change in culture an artificial or fake experience, eventually is recognized as authentic. Urry (2002) explains this as the tourist belief of authenticity is created by ‘modern mass media by means of ‘time-space compression.

The Post-modern theory: This was postulated by Wang and he called it existential authenticity, also known as activity-based authenticity (1999). This theory differs from the above two, as it is not concerned with the object of visit but with the experience, the tourist entails at the tourist spot. Wand writes, “Existential authenticity refers to a potential existential state of Being that is to be activated by tourist activities.

Correspondingly, authentic experiences in tourism are to achieve this activated existential state of Being within the liminal process of tourism. Existential authenticity can have nothing to do with the authenticity of toured objects” (ibid: 352). Postmodernism has been debated by others, like Engler who asserts that objectivism may have been mostly discarded as a theory but it is still seen in praxis (n.d). For example, hotels and resorts, or group tours that promise to give an authentic feel of the culture of the tourist site. 

Authenticity became a topic of discussion in the 1950s and became an important concept to discuss, as acting as an inspiration to travel and for its ability to exhibit itself in tourism happenings. It is however found that while academics talk more of the constructivist approach of authenticity in real life, objective authenticity prevails more.

Discuss This Questions

Name the three theories on the basis of which authenticity is studied in tourism by social scientists.

There are a few types of theoretical models of tourism; descriptive models, explanatory models, and predictive models (Chorley and Haggett 1967). A descriptive model depicts the tourism system while an explanatory model illustrates how the system and subsystem function.

What does the objectivist theory talk about?

Objectivists reject alternative notions of rights, such as positive rights, collective rights, or animal rights. Objectivism claims that the only social system which fully recognizes individual rights is capitalism, specifically what Rand described as "full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism".

How is the objectivist theory different from the constructivism theory?

Evaluation based on objectivist assumptions is goal-driven. In constructivist environments, the teacher does not identify specific objectives. Evaluation in constructivist settings is goal-free (Jonassen, 1992b).

Constructivists believe that learning is internally controlled and mediated by the learner. Objectivists believe that learning is externally mediated by the instructional strategies that predetermine the required mental activities that give rise to acquiring the elements of an external reality.

What does Wang’s existential authenticity deal with?

Finally, existential authenticity, or experience-oriented authenticity, describes authenticity as the result of touristic activity participation that builds an intimate connection between visitors and destinations (Steiner & Reisinger, 2006; Wang, 1999).

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