Authentic Experience

1173790_755604857783259_1813131744_nIn Tourist Trash Versus ‘Real’ Experiences blogger Ben Groundwater tried to deal with the notion of authenticity in tourism. For the most part, he is concerned with what counts as real when it comes to travel. Although I think he misses the point, for the most part, he closes with the following insight:

There’s no such thing as “real” when you’re travelling [sic]- only what you like and what you don’t.

This is part true, I think he missed out on something, the short version is here.

The longer version goes like this:

It is kind of a shame, but people rarely use the opportunity vacation gives them to think about leisure or vacationing generally. I have lived and worked in or near tourist destinations all my life. What Groundwater probably should have said was, “The only thing that is real when you’re traveling is your experience.” Vacation is not the time to try and have an authentic experience, that’s what your life is for. Vacation is the chance to fill up on new experiences, opportunities and perspectives you normally might not have access to.

If you want to know how the locals live, you have to live like the locals. Primarily, this involves developing a distain for the kinds of people who feel as if they can show up in your town, belittle its quaintness or complain about its rustic nature and leave whenever they want. The local experience is defined by the tourist, just as the tourist’s experience is defined by the locals. There is, by definition, objectifying that takes place when a traveler makes assumptions about “the locals” in the interest of authenticity.

No one likes being thought of as some sort of anthropology find.  The locals tend to hang out where all locals tend to hang out, with friends or family in the privacy of their own homes. When they “go out” they go the same places you do–sometimes to the movies, sometimes to dinner, sometimes both. In larger tourist centers, they go out less often or off-season because tourists drive up prices. Although some places offer 10 percent off to locals (off-season), there is no secret handshake. As often as not, you’ll find them at the festivals held to attract tourists, if they were lucky enough to get the day off.

Inside advice might get you to a restaurant you might not have chosen on your own, but make no mistake, in a tourist destination, the primary criterion the locals have for a “place” is that you’re not there.  An exception, of course, is if the locals are going to try and sleep with you, then you’ll find them at the biggest, shiniest, tourist trap on the strip.

Unless you’ve decided to spend a few years of immersion, the best you can do is enjoy the same area other people enjoy. The worst you can do is be the ugly, loud, oaf the locals expect you to be. This might be because it’s true, but it is also a kind of defense mechanism. You can objectify them all you want. They’ll go ahead and objectify you back.