The article that initiated this discussion, 7 Reasons Why the ‘Authentic’ Travel Experience Is a Myth by Gary Arndt was published in the Atlantic in March. Since then it has been re-posted and discussed all over the internet. It’s an interesting topic in the on-going critique of global tourism. Here is a response and my own thoughts.
Gary Arndt has been traveling and blogging around the world since March 2007. He is the author of the popular travel blog Everything Everywhere.
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. I have exchanged emails with people ready to set out on a long adventure who see themselves living with tribespeople in the African bush or in Southeast Asian villages.
Most likely, they are in for a disappointment.
The problem stems from the expectations people have before they go. When I was in Samoa, I was talking to a woman from New Zealand who had been driving around the islands. She sounded disappointed and a little bit upset that Samoans had television sets. She lamented the destruction of the Samoan lifestyle and blamed it on Western countries. She then went into a rant about how wonderful it was being able to live a self-sufficient life in a village.
When an ethnic restaurant opens up in a Western country, that’s diversity. When a Western restaurant opens up in a non-Western country, that’s cultural imperialism.
I pointed out the inconvenient fact that Samoa is not in fact self-sufficient in food. No Pacific country is. The most popular foods are instant noodles and corned beef. The biggest part of the Samoan economy is income sent home from Samoans living abroad. The current population of Samoa would be almost impossible to sustain by methods used in the 19th century.
She got upset and ended the conversation.
She had an idea of what Samoa was, and more importantly, what she thought Samoa should be. Her Samoa was closer to the Samoa of the 19th century or the Samoa of Margaret Mead. She was denied her authentic cultural experience because Samoans (how dare they!) were watching TV and using electricity. Samoans just weren’t Samoan enough for her. Even though she would never state it as such and would bristle at the accusation, she wanted Samoa to be a cultural zoo where she could go and look at the locals doing their cultural thing.
The problem of course wasn’t with Samoa. It was with the woman. She suffered from several fallacies that infect many travelers.
These beliefs include:
The myth of the noble savage
Steven Pinker explained this idea in great detail in his seminal book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. The belief holds that before the arrival of Western civilization, people everywhere lived in harmony with each other and with nature. This is far from the truth. If anything, even despite the horrific wars of the 20th century, humanity has become more peaceful over time. Early humans were warlike and did their damnedest to harness nature, which was the biggest threat to their survival. They just didn’t have the tools to do the damage we can. Sun Tzu didn’t write The Art of War as a thought experiment. It has been estimated that prior to the rise of civilization and agriculture, 60 percent of males in some regions could expect to die from the hands of another person through warfare, murder, or execution. Mass burning of land was a common way to flush out animals. People in developing countries are neither innocents nor scoundrels. They are just like anyone else.
Applying different standards to other cultures
When an ethnic restaurant opens up in a Western country, that’s diversity. When a Western restaurant opens up in a non-Western country, that’s cultural imperialism. If diversity is good for us, why isn’t it good for others? Preservation of culture is considered an asset when practiced by other countries, but a liability when practiced at home. There are more Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Wendy’s, and KFCs … COMBINED. I don’t think anyone is worried about a Chinese cultural takeover of America. A few McDonald’s and Starbucks overseas is hardly an invasion. Author Rachel Laudan noted the response by one of her Mexican friends who was criticized for serving Italian food: “Why can’t we eat spaghetti, too?”
Confusing modernization and Westernization
Through the power of guns, germs, and steel, the first part of the world to modernize was Europe and North America. As other countries modernize, many people confuse this technological advancement with becoming more Western. In the above example, Samoans have TV, but they mostly still live in traditional fales and have strong village and family ties. Japan is a fully modern country, yet it is most definitely not Western. Technology isn’t culture. While there are some groups that resist technological change, the vast majority of humanity has quickly grabbed at any innovation that will make life easier. The classic modern example is cell phones, which have found their way to some of the poorest and remotest places on Earth.
A static view of history
If you take a very long view of human history, it can be thought of as nothing but a flow of people, ideas, and cultures. Empires rise and fall. Religions come and go. Trade routes open and ideas and technologies are exchanged. The clothing, dances, and music of a country can really be considered fashions and fads of a particular era as much as pillars of particular cultures. The design of the Ming Dynasty in China was different than that of the Chin. When you hear the traditional music of a people, that music may only go back a few hundred years, if even that far. The arrival of Buddhism in Southeast Asia dates back to about the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Prior to that, Hinduism was dominant. When you visit a monastery in Thailand, you are not seeing something that has been there from time immemorial—you are viewing something that didn’t exist only a few hundred years ago. Expecting everyone you meet in a country to be wearing traditional dress is like expecting everyone in the United States to be wearing stovepipe hats and bonnets.
Taking photos too literally
Ever see a photo of a thatched bungalow on stilts over the water in a turquoise lagoon? It makes for a great photo and many people fantasize about staying in an over water bungalow. They are a marketing gimmick. Water bungalows are not authentic in the slightest. They were created several decades ago as a way to attract tourists. What the photo doesn’t show you is that you very well might be sleeping over mud when the tide goes out (with the corresponding dead fish smell), or that the bungalows probably have killed all marine life below them because they block sunlight. I have spoken in the past of travel porn. What you have to keep in mind is that just like porn, what you see is often fake. Don’t get your heart set on it.
White Man’s Burden
You will be hard pressed to find anyone who would explicitly say there is a “White Man’s Burden” in the 21st century, but you can find tons of people, from Jeffrey Sachs to Bono, who think that with the correct policy, plan, or organization, “we” Westerners can solve the problems of Africa and other poor parts of the world. The emotional desire to do something in the face of extreme poverty is understandable, but you’d be hard pressed to find any examples in history of a people rising out of poverty on the basis of the aid from another country. Go listen to the African speakers at the TED Africa conference. They don’t want pity or for us to solve their problems. They understand they must solve these problems on their own terms, in their own way. I am not saying you shouldn’t volunteer when you travel, but you should be realistic about what can be achieved and don’t look upon the people you are helping as objects of pity.
The Traveler Quantum Effect
One tenet of quantum physics is that the simple act of observing an event will alter the outcome of the event. Traveling is no different. When we have a guest over at our house we tend to clean up, dress nice, and be on our best behavior. One thing any true “authentic” experience would have is the lack of tourists taking part. The very act of being somewhere means that you are changing the environment and removes the possibility of having a true authentic experience.
The world is what it is, and you have to explore it on its terms, not yours. No matter what you expect to see when you visit a new place, the reality you will find will be different. You are traveling in the 21st century, not the 19th. Do not expect people to be caricatures or stereotypes of something you have in mind. View the people you meet as neither cultural superiors nor objects of pity. Moreover, whatever you think is authentic was developed without your having experienced it.
Change your expectations and you’ll find that every experience is authentic to itself.
– – – – – – – – –
“Authentic travel” is about accepting things as they are
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.
Ironically, although the latter blogger, Gloria, states she disagrees agrees with Gary, with notice they both end their articles on the same note:
Gary Ardnt: “The world is what it is, and you have to explore it on its terms, not yours.
Gloria / At Home in Tuscany: “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.”
Final note: My response to both:
Authentic travel? Are you referring to small towns and nature as opposed to Disneyland or chain restaurants/accommodations? My concept of authentic travel is visiting and exploring and supporting small businesses – wherever they are – that celebrate and promote the local culture, food, art, heritage and travel. To me, authentic travel is about keeping local roots alive – increasing our understanding of what “buy local” really means. Not just buying from a business that is located in your town (or the town you are visiting) but one that is owned locally, that promotes other local products and services, that helps sustain the uniqueness of community culture, that recycles dollars back into the local economy creating more jobs. E.g. a Target or Walmart in a town is NOT a local business. While they employ people they create fewer jobs than they destroy by displacing existing stores in a region. I believe authentic travel means celebrating your community culture (local food, land/scenery, crafts, music, literature, visual arts, theater). Travel organizations and businesses that advertise “authentic travel” are selling concepts – unless they are promoting local businesses, organizations, events, etc.
Travelers interested in authentic travel will support locally-owned businesses and events and avoid corporate chains that suck the authentic out of the place.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: 7 Reaons Why the Authentic Travel Experience is a Myth, authentic travel, critique of global tourism, Deborah McLaren, Everything Everywhere, Gary Arndt, Gloria At Home in Tuscany, The Atlantic, TravelMomma | 1 Comment »
Posted by deborahmclaren on April 17, 2011
Hold down the fort! Travel Momma is on a lovely adventure down under – researching and writing a bunch of cool stories about buy-local, 100% Pure New Zealand adventures, the whole new farmer’s markets push around the country, manuka honey, a star sanctuary, and sheep… yes, lots of sheep.
I’ll be home next week.
Posted in family travel, food and wine, green travel, Indigenous tourism, Kiwis, New Zealand, quite unusual, sacred sites, travel, travel writing | Tagged: Auckland, Christchurch, Deborah McLaren, manuka honey, Maori, Momma, New Zealand, New Zealand farmer market, Oceania, sheep, star sanctuary, Tourism New Zealand, Travel and Tourism, Travel Momma, Travel Services, TravelMomma | 1 Comment »
Posted by deborahmclaren on March 27, 2011
The Mighty Bow
The Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association (MBOTMA) sponsors numerous events around the state each year. We enjoy the Bluegrass Winter Festival held in Plymouth (suburb of Minneapolis) each March. Besides the hundreds of diverse acoustic musicians and bands, everywhere jams, dancing and general pleasantry there is a youth program, the Grass Seeds Academy, that offers kids a chance to learn jamming etiquette, ensemble playing, how to play back-up and take a lead break on their instrument, plus singing lead and harmony vocals. The kids have a lot of fun, but they work hard too. They learn from gifted musicians that dedicate their time to the kids – taking ocassional breaks to perform on stage themselves. And finally they perform with their self-created bands on Sunday afternoon.
This year’s faculty was The High 48’s, winners of the 2009 Rockygrass band competition. Anthony Ihrig on banjo and resophonic guitar, Rich Casey on bass, Chad Johnson on mandolin and Eric Christopher returned for a fourth year of teaching fiddle – and some mandolin. Mark Kreitzer joined them to teach guitar. The perennial favorite, Chuck Millar was back to teach fiddle and a little bit of everything else, too. New this year is Ryan Kimm, teaching guitar, resophonic guitar, and bass. He is an experienced teacher and the kids loved his youthful energy and enthusiasm. Catie Jo Pidel, a former GS student plays in Ruby Magpie with Ryan and was also along as an enthusiastic teacher this year. Sandi Pidel, the Grass Seeds Coordinator, can be reached at 763-784-5286 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Little Dude, Big Bass, Joyous Noise!
The main goal of Grass Seeds is to get young people playing their instruments and loving traditional music.
Grass Seeds Academy
GSII is a new off-shoot this year of extra talented youth from 14-18. This group will work on more difficult arrangements and advanced techniques like improvisation. They will really focus in on what it takes to be part of a performing group.
The High 24s playing their version of Shenandoah Valley Breakdown
The GSII playing Wagon Wheel. Bob would be proud.
A lovely time was had by all.
Posted in cultural heritage, family travel, Minnesota, music, Uncategorized | Tagged: Anthony Ihrig, Arts, Catie Jo Pidel, Chad Johnson, Chuck Miller, Deborah McLaren, Eric Christopher, Grass, Mark Kreitzer, MBOTMA, Minneapolis, music, Musical ensemble, Plymouth, Rich Casey, Ruby Magpie, Ryan Kimm, Sandi Pidel, Shenandoah Valley Breakdown, Shopping, The High 48s, Travel Momma, United States, Wagon Wheel | 1 Comment »
Posted by deborahmclaren on March 20, 2011
We’re heading to New Zealand in April. Looking for sustainable, locally-owned businesses (accommodations, cafes, art galleries, etc), organizations and events. Tips for such places appreciated. Please send directly to me at Deborah AT mm.com
Christchurch – Picking up car in Christchurch to drive to Queenstown,
considering a stop in between
Posted in art, Buy-local, cultural heritage, green travel, Indigenous tourism, sustainable tourism, sustainable travel | Tagged: Auckland, buy-local, Coromandel, Deborah McLaren, Dunedin, Earth and Sky Lab, Hamilton, Locally-owned, Milford Sound, New Zealand, Queenstown, Rotorua, Travel Momma | Leave a Comment »
Posted by deborahmclaren on March 4, 2011
2011 CSA Farm Directory
Time to find your CSA (community supported agriculture) farm delivery to ensure a nice, fresh box of goodies arrives for you each week this summer. There are dozens of farms listed in the new 2011 CSA Farm Directory!
The website includes information about each farm and a map with drop-off sites.
CSAs deliver everything from eggs, lip balm, honey, flowers, organic and heirloom vegetables, to tasty broiler chickens, salsas, pickles, lamb, jam, artisan dough breads, gluten-free baked goods and grass fed beef.
Some CSAs host member events – festivals, hootenannies, gardening, slow foods dinners, garlic festivals, corn feeds, wine tastings, walks in the woods, bonfires, hay rides, farm tours, camping, barn dances and opportunities to reconnect with the land – forests, prairies, creeks, and animals.
Check out the directory for the CSA that fits your needs. CSA farms are dedicated to healthy, fresh foods and a better planet.
Posted in Buy-local, food and wine, Minnesota, Slow Foods | 1 Comment »
Posted by deborahmclaren on March 1, 2011
Minneapolis bike-sharing program prepares to expand into St. Paul
By Frederick Melo
Updated: 03/01/2011 09:32:01 AM CST
Minneapolis resident Claire Bootsma sat on a ‘Nice Ride’ bike as it was parked at the rack on Nicollet Ave. at Grant Street in Minneapolis July 1, 2010. (Pioneer Press, file)
The Nice Ride Minnesota bicycle-sharing program has moved a step closer to expanding from Minneapolis into St. Paul. Although specific rental locations haven’t been identified, nearly $2 million in new federal funding and foundation support will allow the program to grow from 65 sites to more than 100 this spring.
“I think in total we’ll probably add 50 more stations this year,” said Bill Dossett, executive director of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit. “You will see stations in St. Paul, but I don’t know how many yet, and I don’t know where.”
He said an official decision is about two weeks away. Eight of the stations will be in North Minneapolis.
As for the potential location of the St. Paul sites, here’s a clue: A chunk of the new funding has come from Macalester College and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, a coalition of foundations that aims to protect the University Avenue neighborhoods around the future light-rail route being built from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis.
A series of public meetings hosted by Nice Ride Minnesota last fall generated more than 800 suggested sites.
Nice Ride, which is based out of the Midtown Bike Center along the Midtown Greenway in South Minneapolis, currently maintains 65 bicycle stations where commuters can rent bikes for short trips, mostly.
Organizers say surveys show 20 percent of the 100,000 trips taken between the program’s launch last June and November would otherwise have been taken by car.”We’re excited to see the success of the first year,” said Hilary Reeves, a spokeswoman for Transit for Livable Communities.
On Monday, Transit for Livable Communities, a St. Paul-based nonprofit organization, announced Nice Ride will receive $1 million from the Federal Highway Administration to fund the program’s expansion. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota will add $500,000 as part of a challenge pledge, and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative will put in $250,000.
Macalester College is contributing $30,000 through its High Winds Fund, which aims to improve aesthetics and security on its campus.
In total, Transit for Livable Communities announced it will award federal highway funding of $1.17 million to three capital projects. The city of Fridley will receive $110,000 to add sidewalks and bike lanes from the Northstar commuter rail station and communities to the south.
The city of Minneapolis will receive $62,000 to improve pedestrian safety on Franklin Avenue in the Seward neighborhood.
Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172.
More information about Nice Ride Minnesota is available at its website: NiceRideMN.org.
Posted in alternative transportation, climate solutions, green travel, Minnesota, Saint Paul, sustainable travel | Tagged: Deborah McLaren, Frederick Melo, Nice Ride Minnesota, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Transit for Livable Communities, Travel Momma, Twin Cities Bike Share | Leave a Comment »