Agent Speak: What Does “Authentic” Travel Really Mean?

Members of Chiang Mai's hill tribe communityin Thailand.
Members of Chiang Mai’s hill tribe community in Thailand. (Photo credit: Khiri Travel)

Michael Healy, general manager, Khiri Travel USA, submitted this commentary to Recommend on his take on the cultural authenticity of travel experiences. 

In the travel industry certain buzzwords become popular each year. In many conferences I’ve been to recently there’s talk about “authentic” travel and what it actually means.

The idea of authentic travel is simple: it’s a genuine connection with people and places that we visit. Yet, somehow we make it much more complicated. We constantly hear how clients want to get off the beaten path and visit unknown and exotic villages that “no other tourists go to.” We’ve been tricked into thinking this will somehow be more “authentic.” But when an itinerary is presented to them with just such excursions, people back away because sleeping accommodations are too rustic or the hike is too strenuous.

Furthermore, we also have people needlessly stressing about how authentic and unique their big trip will be. For example, to do an 8-hour, roundtrip from Chiang Mai and think you’re visiting an untouched village which is immune to any sort of cultural exchange with modern living is ludicrous. Consumers and some travel professionals are brainwashed into believing authentic travel means you have to visit far-flung villages where indigenous people still dress and live as if it were the distant past.

There are many problems with this particular way of thinking. It is cultural and institutional ignorance to feel let down when we see natives dressed similar to us in blue jeans and a T-shirt, using a cell phone, and then assume it’s not authentic.

This line of thinking is dangerous because it underhandedly suggests that natives need to live in a way that meets our preconceived notions of “authentic” or “exotic.” It disrespectfully assumes that having a cell phone, computer or shopping at a big brand grocery store makes them traitors to their historical culture.

Indeed, it is unfair to assume that the places we visit should constantly be frozen in distant history. It would be crazy to question why I don’t still dress as the pilgrims and chop wood before heading to the office. So why do we demand the same from indigenous populations we visit to deem it “authentic”?

I have visited many villages that some people would not consider “authentic” because they’re harvesting rice in jeans, or using tools you and I own to construct their houses. But in such villages, the reality is that families are welcoming new borns, saying goodbye to loved ones and living life with whatever means are available to them. That makes these villages, people and their culture “authentic.” It has nothing to do with whether or not they are dressed in traditional garments and living as their ancestors did.

This is not to say it’s impossible to find fascinating villages with inhabitants who live in vastly different ways than you and I. Such visits can be exciting, educational and mutually beneficial for traveler and local alike. You will learn things from them and they will learn from you. That is what travel is all about.

Travel should breakdown walls, not build up and highlight differences between one and other.

Authentic travel is not a preconceived notion of differences in dress and culture. It’s a warm smile, a handshake or a great conversation over a cup of tea. The sooner we as travel professionals understand this, the better we can inform our clients what to expect and how to treasure it.