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When people bring a sense of self-awareness and intention into the travel experience, they are primed to consider what authenticity means to them. | Photo by JoAnna Haugen

What Does “Authentic” Mean — and Why Does It Matter?


Published on October 12, 2021


A few weeks ago, I attended a special dinner event. It was held in the heart of the Tunis medina, right next to the Madrasa Slimania, which was built in 1754. My party of four sat around a small table, our chairs wobbly on the cobblestones in the narrow alleyway lit by spotty lighting. Cats slunk in and out of the shadows; one perched on a branch above me, tangled in the bougainvillea. 

The dinner was a seven-course meal curated by a Palestinian chef. He introduced himself and the night’s dishes, then made his way to each of the tables, speaking an assortment of languages depending on the guests' primary language.

Snapping a photo of the dinner, I had this thought: Was this an authentic event?

Surely the setting was steeped in history, as Tunisian as Tunisia can be. But, the food was Palestinian, and the chef spoke English. I had traveled there by taxi, a common form of transport in Tunisia. Would taking the above-ground tram be a more genuine expression of place?

As a long-term expatriate, I think about this idea of authenticity a lot. If someone visits my current home country of Tunisia, an “authentic” experience probably includes an excursion through the medina where I had dinner. Perhaps there’s a cooking class, likely with brik, harissa, and tuna as part of the meal. Certainly there’s time on the beach: Tunisia markets itself as a beach destination and it is a favorite local pastime.

But what about the crowded big-box store that is packed on Saturday morning when people stock up on toilet paper and groceries for the week? Or the café down the street from my home that serves excellent crepes and juice but has nothing to speak of for a view? These are a genuine part of daily life for me and my neighbors, so does that make them authentic too?

The word “authentic” is used liberally in the tourism industry: Travelers are invited to eat “authentic” food, participate in “authentic” cultural activities, and stay in “authentic” homestays.  

But it’s also a contentious word. This is likely because it can be interpreted many different ways. Because of that, use of the word “authentic” without context can create misunderstanding, inaccurate expectations, and a traveler-centered experience that doesn’t reflect reality for the people who live in a destination.

That doesn't mean the word “authentic” shouldn't be used in the tourism context, but it is important to understand why it can cause confusion and how to ensure it doesn’t cause harm.

Authenticity as Reality

One definition of “authentic” is “genuine” and “real.” Presumably, this is the definition people lean into when they seek out the “authentic” food “local” people eat, the activities they participate in, and the places they sleep. This is in comparison to the places that tourists eat, the activities that tourists participate in, and the accommodations tourists sleep in. 

Except, isn’t it equally authentic if people eat dinner at the chain restaurant in their neighborhood or run through Starbucks on their way to work? Aren’t people who live in Orlando allowed to go to Disney World, or folks living in Paris able to visit and appreciate the Louvre? Those are common, real activities for average residents living in certain places.

Authenticity as defined by what is “real” has a myriad of different definitions. And with countless definitions, there’s no shared understanding about what’s actually authentic.

Travelers are increasingly seeking “local” experiences, which are presumably the ones reflected in day-to-day living. This brings up another issue related to authenticity as reality: Who, exactly, do we mean when we say “local?” Does this refer to Indigenous peoples who have lived on the land for generations? Locally born residents or people who have simply lived there a long time? Does authenticity tie in influences from colonizers’ cultures? Arguably, those aspects are woven into a place as well.

Everyone’s definition of reality is different. With this in mind, authenticity as defined by what is “real” has a myriad of different definitions. And with countless definitions, there’s no shared understanding about what’s actually authentic.

Authenticity as Uniqueness

The mental gymnastics of defining what is authentic may be served by looking at a different definition of authentic: not copied.

In his article on the authenticity dilemma, writer Bobby McGee discusses a stay in rural Cambodia, where he stayed in a local person’s home and spent his days working alongside local residents. Upon preparing to leave, a community leader asked them to share their experience with others so that they, too, could have the “same experience.” 

In other words, in seeking authenticity, travelers may not be seeking what is “real” for local people, but rather experiences that are organic versus curated.

McGee mulls over the request: “Of course we would share our stories when we got back home, but what did he mean by inviting more people to ‘have the same experience?’ Didn’t we just share something unique together? Why would they want to ruin their beautiful community by exposing it to more foreigners?”

In other words, in seeking authenticity, travelers may not be seeking what is “real” for local people, but rather experiences that are organic versus curated. Unscripted versus planned. Uniquely belonging to a specific person versus available to other people.

This, of course, is a difficult dilemma for tour operators, who must meticulously plan community-based itineraries, develop long-term relationships with on-the-ground partners, ensure activities avoid exploiting people and harming the environment, and create appropriate expectations with travelers. Though a visit is less scripted for a DIY traveler, it’s still important to establish boundaries, minimize opportunities for extraction and commodification, and maximize opportunities for positive impact.

In this scenario, then, “authenticity” is found by making unscripted space within planned experiences. This happens when there are people for travelers to talk to and interact with, hands-on activities for travelers to participate in, and time for travelers to stumble upon unexpected moments. 

Nonetheless, it is important for travelers to understand that they, as travelers, are not unique in their interest in having unique experiences. And, in order to ensure local people are not exploited, neighborhoods avoid gentrification, and the environment is cared for, there are often boundaries, expectations, and business strategies placed around the experiences they have.

Authenticity as Defined by Travelers

The point above highlights one of the key problems with “authenticity” in the tourism context, and that is that it is often traveler-centered and based on travelers’ beliefs and expectations of what is "local" and "authentic.” Shopping at the big-box store for laundry detergent, while very authentic in the sense it is what local people do on a day-to-day basis, isn’t what travelers have in mind.

People say they increasingly want “authenticity” when they travel. It is what sells, and so the tourism industry develops experiences that can be defined as such and uses the terminology to market its offerings. But with the desire to help travelers find “authentic” moments, there is a slippery slope in creating experiences that are authentic as defined by travelers.

This has proven to be particularly problematic in regard to food. In some destinations, dishes have become “Americanized” to please the Western palette and meet Western expectations. Many people think that when they travel to China or Mexico, they’ll find the food they eat at U.S.-based Chinese buffets or Taco Bell. And where there’s a demand, there is a supply serving up that “authentic” dish that isn’t actually a part of the local culture at all.

With the desire to help travelers find “authentic” moments, there is a slippery slope in creating experiences that are authentic as defined by travelers.

The other issue related to food is how colonizers have influenced flavors, and whether those influences take away from or are a part of the authenticity of dishes. This issue is hotly contested, and at its core is what defines authenticity: “what it is and who gets to define it, as well as what counts as a taint on a cuisine and what has been lovingly adopted into the traditions,” according to this Eater article.

This is all to say that sometimes “authenticity” may be defined by travelers based on their expectations, and the tourism industry has helped reinforce these expectations by creating what they want. As noted by McGee, “advertising can set false expectations about what we as foreigners perceive as culturally authentic,” and that is a problem.

Authenticity as Intention

Because everyone has their own interpretation of what the word might mean, “authentic” experiences might not be so much about their “authenticity” but about the experiences themselves and how travelers navigate and understand them. Looking at the conundrum from this angle, authenticity is both reality and uniqueness as interpreted by each individual in a singular moment. This acute sense of awareness is an invitation for people to be more mindful of and reflect upon the world around them when they travel.

“To be able to engage with something authentic in a destination helps us understand what it means to be human in that place,” suggested Aubrie Campbell Canfield, co-founder of Actuality Abroad, when I posed the authenticity dilemma to Rooted readers. “I think the best way for travelers to connect with actual authenticity is to travel with the intent to learn from specific individuals who are living in the place they want to visit.”

 This lack of attention to intention has not served the tourism industry when it comes to defining authenticity. 

The old-school tourism framework didn’t encourage intention. In fact, it rebelled against it, instead encouraging travelers to kick back, relax, and not give a care about what was going on in the world. After all, they were on holiday.

But this lack of attention to intention has not served the tourism industry when it comes to defining authenticity in this way.

The tourism industry needs to change the narrative about the purpose of travel. People need to understand their personal bias and perspective when traveling. They need to be encouraged to carry a sense of awareness and mindfulness with them throughout their travels — when they enter spaces, interact with others, participate in activities, order food, and buy souvenirs. They need to have the wherewithal to question what they are seeking when they seek “authenticity,” why they’ve defined something this way, and how that reflects on the perspective they bring to the experience.

Self-reflection in this context surfaces authenticity as defined and experienced by the individual. This is an introspective journey of critical thinking, awareness, and self-discovery within the context of a travel experience. It is intentional, personal, and evolving.

The Power in Specificity

The problem with authenticity is that it means different things to different people. It has no agreed-upon definition and is open for interpretation. This can lead to confusion (and even a feeling of betrayal) when travel service providers intend to communicate authenticity in one way but travelers interpret it another way.

Additionally, in an attempt to find and deliver authenticity, it can be manufactured and warp cultures to please travelers.

So, what can the tourism industry do about that tricky word — “authenticity?”

It’s important to realize that there’s nothing wrong with the word “authentic” in and of itself. But, given the baggage that comes with the word, it may be better to be specific. As always, context provides clarity. For example, instead of saying travelers will have an “authentic meal with a family,” state that they’ll have a “dinner of locally sourced, communal dishes with a family.”

More importantly, travel providers should think about what they mean by the word when they use it. Is it intended to convey something informal? Unique? Community focused? Or, are they using the term because it’s a buzzword that sells?

Tourism is evolving, but that evolution requires consideration about how we describe and present these experiences.

It is also important to avoid confusing quality with identity. That is, is something “authentic” because it is an unexpected, unscripted, intimate experience or is it “authentic” because it’s an activity that is highly localized, such as the routines and habits of the people who live there? This difference matters.

Tourism is evolving, and on a surface level, the surge of interest in authentic, community-based travel experiences points to a promising model where travelers are more connected and engaged. But this evolution requires consideration about how we describe and present these experiences so that expectations are clearly established and local people and cultures benefit without being exploited.

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is a writer, public speaker, solutions advocate, and founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, storytelling, and social impact. Get in touch with her for partnership and collaboration opportunities.


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