22 Apr 2011

Why authentic travel should not be a myth.

“Authentic travel” is about accepting things as they are

authentic travel

I have just read an interesting article, which I don’t agree with: 7 Reasons Why the ‘Authentic’ Travel Experience Is a Myth by Gary Arndt (@EverywhereTrip on Twitter). Gary Arndt writes:

One reason people travel is to have an “authentic experience.” They envision traveling to a foreign country and living, eating, and doing the things locals do. […] Most likely, they are in for a disappointment.

The reason why I believe this does not necessarily mean that authentic travel is a myth is in the journalist’s words themselves. In a quite contradictory way, he continues:

The problem stems from the expectations people have before they go.

That is, in my opinion, the whole point. As I have stated in other posts, I am a huge supporter of forms of tourism which can be variously defined as “authentic, local, responsible, slow,… travel”. Authenticity is not a myth… it is acceptance of things the way they actually are. The way things are at a destination might not be what one expected, but if travelers are open-minded, able to see the limitations imposed by their own expectations and willing to embrace the reality of the local lifestyle, they can certainly experience the authentic spirit of the place. They might not like it, and they might find out that a certain place is not for them, nothing wrong with that. But the only disappointment should come from one’s own inability to get over one’s expectations.

Expectations are a dangerous thing and come with consequences. Yet they can’t be avoided. They might misguide us and when they are shared by many, they have the power to change a destination. Tuscany is an example of this.

Most expectations have been created by novels or romantic comedies set in the region. Stereotypes, romanticized images, and some misconceptions have been spread. Crowds of tourists have started coming expecting (and often demanding) the very same experiences portrayed in fiction. The result has been that certain areas have changed to adapt to that image and to keep those crowds coming.

Is this inevitable? Probably. Yet, as a vacation rental owner, and a blogger, I kind of feel the need to present life in Tuscany as it is. I always try to prepare our guests by explaining what they will find if they come to our village and what they won’t find. If they want an authentic experience, they have to be ready to give up some familiar habits and “put up” with what we, the local people, also put up with on a daily basis.

It might be for many, it is not for all. Nothing wrong. But experiencing the authentic local life is possible, provided one is ready to accept things as they actually are and not necessarily as one expected.


  1. So true Gloria…very well expressed… I’ll be adding you as a follower…

  2. Thank you Mary Jane, How are you? Happy Easter!

  3. While I agree with you, Gloria, it seems most travelers don’t have the ability or desire to perceive the authentic. People are so busy fiddling with their cameras that they don’t see the real people around them. Or American bloggers in Italy who make special arrangements to see American TV! (this is not a defense of Pippo Baudo). Authentic is there for the taking, but it takes effort.
    Love to hear an Italian reaction to our Liberation story. Buona Festa,

  4. Hi Mike, that’s why I say that it’s for some people and not for all. But it depends on the traveler not the concept. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I couldn’t agree with you more, Gloria: so much is built around expectations. But it isn’t enough just to tell people to temper their expectations. It’s also about helping people to relax as travelers and to enjoy what’s right in front of them, not judge it and not be overly concerned about documenting it. In the end, they may not like it, but, in keeping with the basic ‘tenets’ of authentic and local travel, they may at least accept a place for what it is, on its own terms, not for what people want it to be or what locals think others want it to be.

  6. Thank you Ethan!

  7. Johnny Hogue

    You say you do not agree but yet, your article explicitly agrees with the article you say you disagree with, how is that? Perhaps I am just thick-headed but where is the disagreement?

    Both you and Mr. Arndt seem to agree about the stupid and foolish expectations of the visitor. The visitor, Mr. Arndt explains, in “The very act of being somewhere means that you are changing the environment and removes the possibility of having a true authentic experience.” I see no disagreement…

  8. Hi Johnny,

    I have replied to your comment here:

  9. I don’t agree with the conclusion of the author that authentic travel is a myth. I am not sure how he can reach that conclusion starting from the premise that travelers’ expectations are to blame, with which I agree.

    He keeps explaining why given the wrong expectations the authentic travel experience is a myth, but it is not at all if one is prepared to experience a place the way it is.

    And I totally disagree with the last passage you quote. I am not changed one little bit in my everyday life by the fact that American or German toursts are walking next to me. If they want to experience this destination for what it is without demanding that it adjusts to their cultural habits – and when it doesn’t, being pissed off – they can very well experience the authentic life style. So for me, authentic travel is not a myth at all, provided people start to be aware of what living in a destination x or y really means, and not what they thing it means. Which is not at all always the case.

    It has nothing to do with the concept of authentic travel, but with individual travelers. I hope this clarifies my opinion.

  10. The debate continues here! Very interesting!

  11. Gary

    I agree entirely and very well worded. It’s the same here in Australia. Many visitors come to Australia expecting to see a lifestyle as depicted in films like Crocodile Dundee, where everyone is a rugged individual able to fend for themselves in the wilds with little more than a knife and a broad-brimmed hat! The truth is, Australia is one of the most urbanised societies in the world, with over 80% of the population living in large modern cities on the coast. Many if not most Australians haven’t even seen a kangaroo in their natural surroundings.

    The best advice for a traveller is to go with the flow. Just take things as they are.

  12. Really? Aren’t there kangaroos everywhere? LOL

  13. I agree with you Gloria. Having been very lucky to have have lived/studied/volunteered in France (5 years and many summers) and Italy (2 years and many summers, mostly in Tuscany) due both to my parents’ nomadic jobs as students and Professors and in my pro-active life as a young man and thereafter, I think that one’s perspective also changes when one stays in a location long-term. A trip is not, in this case, merely a “destination” to be seen.

    The idea that a destination is a place to “do,” as part of the neocolonialist “bucket-list” checklist idea — are notions that are pet peeves to me, as there is a tendency among those who travel this way to treat others and their culture as so many curiosities to photograph and brag about how many countries or places you have visited.

    You are more forgiving than I regarding fellow tourists. When I see Americans walk briskly into one of the finer coffee shops in Siena (Caffe’ Fiorella), and demand loudly in English for a “coke and a coffee,” it embarrasses me for them (no nationality is except from this sort of behavior, of course), as no effort is made to realize where they are and respect the customs of the place they are at in the heart of where Renaissance Humanism was born, no less!. There is no attempt to at least say “please” or try to convey their requests in Italian, if you will, when locals are so often forgiving of any language difficulties and appreciative of any effort. The barista is not a servant who deserves such disrespect.

    When one lives with locals, even after learning the language, one will always be an outsider in the absolutist sense, but one learns to accept a location and a culture/subculture(s) for what it is. Not to be too existential, but one simply learns to “be” in that location, with the local people, and experience the local culture. Everything else follows, from open-mindedness to true empathy for the locals and appreciation for their culture–both in its positive and negative lights.

    I am therefore convinced that long-term travel and staying in once location is one of the better ways to experience “authentic travel” where possible. When the line between living with others and traveling dissolves, that is where the experience of authenticity begins. Post-moderns will tell you that there is no such thing as authenticity in the absolute sense and that authenticity is a very naive notion disproved by the intellectual “progress” of modern linguistic theory (itself derived from ideas and intellectual games from 19th century thinkers, and their ancestors, etc.).

    I prefer not to be a nihilist or a relativist and enjoy the incredible hospitality of hosts, such as can be found in many locations in Italy and worldwide.

    Home rentals or Agritourismi or Hostels, the longest possible if one can afford them, are great ways to visit an area for those in search of some semblance of authenticity, I have found in my travels at all stages of life, by the way. But I am open to any ideas which contradict my experience for future reference.


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