Interview With Andrew Potter: Travel and the Search for Authenticity
Travel Interviews: Michael Yessis asks the author of "The Authenticity Hoax" if authentic travel experiences exist -- and about the cost of our search for them
05.13.10 | 12:28 PM ET
It’s a goal for many travelers: to have an authentic travel experience. But what is an authentic travel experience? And in a globalized world that, as Andrew Potter writes in The Authenticity Hoax, “is increasingly dominated by the fake, the prepackaged, and the artificial,” can travelers still find one?
To explore these and other questions I turned to Potter. In his new book, Potter argues that our society’s pursuit of authenticity is misguided; it weakens our communities and relationships, and leads to a “disguised form of status-seeking.” I called him at his office in Toronto.
World Hum: Since the definition of authenticity can vary from person to person, let’s start with this: How do you define authenticity?
Andrew Potter: When you ask people—and the polling data bears this out—what they mean by authentic, they sort of just give synonyms. They say the real, or the original, or the natural, or something like that. So what I try and do in the first few chapters of the book is unpack the meaning of the word by looking at how it’s used and the circumstances and the normative vocabulary that goes along with it, the vocabulary of judgment and sort of moralization that goes along with it.
For the most part, when people talk about the authentic they’re invoking a vocabulary that talks about things and experiences and people and places that are either a refuge from the modern world or in tension with it, or in opposition to it, or in some way antithetical to the modern world.
So in our globalized world, do you think there’s such a thing as an authentic travel experience?
There are certainly authentic experiences—insofar as the authentic is defined as something that’s a refuge from the modern world. That’s what we do when we go canoeing in the Northwest Territories or hiking in Nepal or on an eco-tourism trip to Costa Rica, or any of these things. But what I try to argue in the book is that the search for the authentic comes at a price.
It tends to be quite expensive to find these things. The other side is that it ends up an arms race. You have to go to increasing lengths, and increasingly expensive lengths, to find the authentic as people discover, for instance, canopy tours in Costa Rica. And so you get this constant sort of hamster wheel that is colonizing increasing parts of the earth and also becoming more expensive at the same time. The upshot of which, the authentic, you can get it. We just need to recognize that it’s a bit of a luxury good.
You touch on travel and tourism in several places in the book, including the story of a French family whose search for authenticity includes a tragic voyage through a dangerous part of the Indian Ocean. Are travelers more prone to the quest for authenticity?
I don’t think so. I think that the search for the authentic is, in a lot of ways, the defining trait of contemporary urban North America. It’s funny. A number of reviewers, mostly in the United States, have brought up the fact that a lot of what I talk about when I talk about the authentic is basically Stuff White People Like, which never occurred to me when I was writing the book.
Which is to say, the search for the authentic is everywhere. But it certainly is a fetish of a certain socioeconomic educated class that sort of likes the things I’m talking about. That’s not to say that the authentic doesn’t sort of get played out in other parts of the culture—Sarah Palin is one example.
You’ve pointed to eco travel and voluntourism as ways travelers are searching for the authentic. What other ways are travelers doing it?
I talk toward the end of the book about a bit of an arms race to find ever more extreme versions of the authentic. So, for instance, in Eastern Europe now you have fascism tourism or commie tourism. That’s not terribly new. In Los Angeles you can take gangland tours. I just read recently in San Francisco you can take Tenderloin tours. You know the Tenderloin district in San Francisco?
Yeah, I lived in San Francisco. That could be a scary proposition.
Yeah, a bit. But you can see what’s at stake here, right? If there’s the general sense that the market economy is inherently alienating and inauthentic. Paying for things. That goes with this sense that poor people, even though they’re poor, live more authentic lives because they live sort of close to the earth and they’re more connected to their labor, and so on, than us rich people sitting at our computers all day long.
And so you get this sense that you can go into the Tenderloin and while there’s suffering there, there’s also a sense that it’s nostalgie de la boue, the sense that you’re seeing something a little more authentic, which is absurd on the face of it but you can see how it’s the end point of a process [in the search for authenticity].
Let’s talk about backpackers. They travel close to the ground, close to the mud. What do you think about travelers who stay in one place for a longer time, who interact with locals, things like that?
I think we need to keep in mind that the backpackers you’re talking about, who go to new areas and beat new paths by living close to the people and close to the earth and so on, they are in a sense—and this isn’t my line, this is from an old book I came across—the shock troops of the mass tourism industry. They’re the ones who go into a place that has no infrastructure for tourism and basically create the market for other people to come in behind them. And that may or may not be a bad thing. But we need to be aware that that’s actually what’s going on. You get the sort of leap-frogging effect where you get this undiscovered country that the backpackers discover, colonize it, and more and more people want that experience as well so they pile in and so you get this constant cycle of looking for the new, looking for the new. And basically left in its wake is mass tourism.
And, again, I’m not necessarily criticizing people for doing this if it makes them happy. I just think we also need to keep aware of what the ultimate effect of that is, which is drawing more and more formerly isolated parts of the world into the mass tourism economy. That’s the inevitable result of this.
In recent years we’ve seen the rise of places like Disney’s California Adventure. Las Vegas has Paris Las Vegas and The Venetian, representations of real world places. As these places come into our lives, how do these places and experiences affect our sense of what is authentic?
That’s a really interesting question. And it’s one of these things I have trouble getting my head around. People ask me a lot, what do you think of reality TV or Lady Gaga or something like that? And I don’t really have any views on that because it’s all sort of degrees of fake, right?
What I think is an interesting distinction is between what I think we can call the explicit fake, which you get somewhere like Vegas where—I’ve never been—but I assume they’ve got a fake Eiffel Tower, fake pyramids. Where everyone knows that it’s fake and it’s sort of like this version of reality that you all know exists behind it, like in Paris there’s a real Eiffel Tower. So you get to play at the fake, right?
That contrasts in an interesting way with places where what is sold to you as authentic is actually a rebuilt version of what was once there. Everyone knows that Warsaw was completely demolished during the war. But they rebuilt part of the city, almost note for note based on old photographs and so on. And it’s not like Vegas where you go and you know there’s a real one. This is the version that has taken the place of the real one. And so that’s a much more subtle, and in some ways, more pernicious selling of authenticity to people. Because with Vegas they’re just selling you fake, right? Where as this is sort of selling something as authentic that’s actually itself highly manufactured and a highly tendentious view of what was real.
I’m not sure that everybody who goes to Vegas is buying that it’s totally fake. I think there are people who think they’re getting a legitimate authentic cultural experience by going to an Italian restaurant in The Venetian.
You may be right about that. What that suggests is that people have sort of authenticity in degrees. For instance, let’s say the absolute fake is going to some Italian restaurant in some fake Venice in Vegas. That’s the absolute fake. Here in Toronto, where I live, you can go down to little Italy and go to an authentic Italian restaurant, probably run by real Italians. And then you could actually go to Venice. And once you’re there, you can either go to the tourist traps they have all set up for tourists, or if you’re really lucky you know a local who will actually make you a dinner in Venice, which you would call the epitome of authenticity.
So all these things have varying degrees of authenticity to them and, not coincidentally, they have varying degrees of priciness attached to them. And so, and the ultimate is to get something that nobody can actually buy at all and that would be having somebody who lives in Venice, a friend of a friend, cook you a meal. Which nobody could even buy on the open market. Which makes it completely authentic.
Are there any other authenticity hoaxes or traps travelers tend to fall for?
I think one of the traps we fall into increasingly is this hope or desire that what makes us happy or that we find enjoyable will also be morally praiseworthy or good for the environment and so on. And I think it would be helpful to distinguish those.
So for instance, I have a friend who went on a voluntourism trip to Nepal. She was going to hike three days into the mountains and work for three weeks at a medical clinic. And she’s someone who had absolutely no training in medicine. And it’s one of these things where when she got there it was kind of a disaster because she really didn’t know what she was doing and it ended up really not working out very well.
What I would encourage people in those circumstances, if you really want to help a medical clinic in Nepal there’s a very simple thing Westerners can do, which is to give money. Because we have a lot of it relative to those people. And so if you’ve got three weeks to spare, one thing you might want to do is work for a week, give the proceeds of that week to the medical clinic, and then take a two week vacation. When the problem solves itself in an ideal way, you get a vacation and the clinic gets what it actually needs, which is cash as opposed to your labor, which is ineffectual.
So those are the kinds of things, we fall into these traps where you want our consumption to be actually morally praiseworthy and I think we shouldn’t be ashamed of wanting to take a trip. I think that’s something we feel in the West, that we should be ashamed of traveling and I don’t think we should.
I agree with that. Thank you so much for talking with me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.