The Tourist Experience and the Debate on Authenticity

The Tourist Experience and the Debate on Authenticity

Subsequent studies on tourism and its cultural impacts have led to another debate in the anthropology of tourism i.e. the notion of authenticity. Although the concept was in discussion in the social sciences, Boorstin (1961) and Mac Cannell (1973) brought it to prominence in the discussions of tourist motivations and expectations.

Dean Mac Cannell in his book The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (1976) argued that the primary motive for tourists to travel is to search for authenticity. They travel with the hope to find genuine experiences i.e. experience an existing lifestyle, or they are looking for authentic/pure culture and cultural artifacts such as rituals. Mac Cannell says, ‘for moderns, reality and authenticity are thought to be elsewhere, in other historical periods and other cultures, in pure, simpler lifestyles’ (2013: 3). 

The modernist period refers to the urban, industrial age, from the 17th century onwards and many scholars have described the urban lifestyle as artificial and lacking in emotional quality. There is therefore a romanticization of the verdant rural areas and relatively less industrialized cultures as retaining humane values and unspoiled lifestyles, even though these are difficult to define and locate constructs. 

However, research has shown that not all tourists seek authenticity, and often tourists are not able to actually observe the local cultures or their everyday life. The tourists come in formally as tourists and are not actually allowed into the privacy of real life. So, to solve this ambiguity Mac Cannell argues that the tourism industry presents tourists with constructed tourist spaces and a ‘staged authenticity’ John P Taylor in his essay on ‘Authenticity and Sincerity in Tourism (2001) explains the concept of staged authenticity by giving an example of the indigenous population Maori of New Zealand. The Maori dance and serve traditional food to tourists to provide an experience of their “culture” to the tourists. But since this does not reflect the Maori life in the original settings, this is an example of ‘staged authenticity. 

Further while arguing the types of tourists Cohen (1988) has pointed out that not all tourists are seeking authentic experiences and may just live in tourist ghettos. Another scholar Daniel Boorstin (1961) argues that the modern tourist is satisfied with the commercial sights like shopping malls and amusement parks created for mass tourism. He argues that the modern tourist often intentionally seeks inauthentic experiences called pseudo-events to escape the superficial lifestyle at home. Furthermore, it is understood that cultures are constantly changing and are not static so the issue of authenticity then becomes ambiguous. 

But Mac Cannell explains that the issue of authenticity still continues to play a significant role in the language of tourism. The language of tourism uses phrases like ‘authentic holiday experience’, ‘a typical old house’, and ‘the old village’ to attract tourists. The more authentic the experience, the higher is its value and thus authenticity perspective becomes an important element in a tourist’s choice of destination. And even destination marketers try to incorporate certain elements of authenticity in the destination image to increase its value. 

The concept of authenticity is relevant to certain types of tourism like ethnic, historical, or cultural tourism which involves some kind of presentation or representation of the ‘Other’ (here the host community). Since then it has received widespread attention in the works of scholars like Brown (1996), Cohen (1988), McIntosh and Prentice (1999), Salamone (1997), and Pearce and Moscardo (1986). Cohen in his paper ‘Towards a Sociology of International Tourism (1972) argues that the modern man is interested in sights, customs and cultures because they are different and he experiences strangeness and novelty in the host cultures. The tourist thus seeks both familiarity and strangeness in the tourism experience.

Discuss Questions

Differentiate between the concepts of authenticity and staged authenticity in tourism studies.

Concepts of Authenticity

Authenticity is a concept of personality in the fields of psychology, existential psychotherapy, existentialist philosophy, and aesthetics. In existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which a person's actions are congruent with his or her values and desires, despite external pressures to social conformity. He states that there are three types of authenticity: objective, constructive, and existential (of postmodernity).

Staged Authenticity in Tourism

'Staged authenticity' is a process where tourism providers put their culture on display to attract travelers who seek genuine experiences (MacCannell, 1973). It is a setting and a set of activities that are staged for the purposes of tourism.

Previous Post Next Post