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.

19 Comments for Interview With Andrew Potter: Travel and the Search for Authenticity

Argentina Vacations 05.13.10 | 1:09 PM ET

ohh its really good post

Mary Arulanantham 05.13.10 | 1:23 PM ET

Really good discussion! We have this struggle in our day to day lives (with kids) as well: go to Disneyland or the more “authentic” boardwalk at Santa Cruz? Buy cheap, retro clothes at the thrift store, or cheap clothes, made in China at Wet Seal that just look retro? Buy organic grapes from Chile in winter, or wait until they are at the farmer’s market in 6 months? Money can buy the illusion of of authenticity, but at the end of the day, a rich person slumming is still rich; the poor person can’t buy his way out of anything.

Terrisa 05.13.10 | 1:30 PM ET

I really enjoyed this post; it brought to mind an episode of travel writer Anthony Bourdain’s television show in which he pointed out that those of us who write about remote and unusual places are, in some ways, contributing to the demise/deterioration of the very places we love. And I have to say, as a resident of Las Vegas, that it is disturbing to think anyone would consider an experience on the Strip to be an authentic representation of other places—but, as disturbing as it might be, I have to concur it’s possible.

Grandma Snatch 05.13.10 | 2:48 PM ET

One thing that we should all be cautious about is generalizing about the role of backpackers. Not all of them are these pioneering arbiters of future tourism in a destination because they had the courage to literally clear a path for the yuppie travelers. Sure some of them are, but in my travels I’ve seen a lot of so-called backpackers who do the opposite. They try the local cuisine once and then stick to pizza and other familiar food. They hang out at backpacker bars and cafes. They meet up with other backpackers and travel in little cocoon-like cadres.

I’m not so sure backpackers are seeking authenticity as much as they’re looking to travel in an “exotic” place while relying on the familiar (i.e. the sense of whatever is familiar back home) as a comfortable womb.

Mike 05.13.10 | 4:09 PM ET

A good rule of thumb is that if you’re paying for something, it’s probably not authentic.

Carlo 05.13.10 | 4:26 PM ET

Great interview, very interesting points. I agree with Grandma Snatch. “Backpackers” in general aren’t the trailblazers alluded to here. The very few people who actually do have these ultimate “authentic” experiences (e.g. trekking across Mongolia alone and staying in nomadic gers NOT with a tour) are backpackers, yes, but the majority that are out there today are just following a new backpackers’ trail. I travel with my wife independently but still we inevitably wind up on some sort of circuit, and we do question “authenticity” all the time.

At Monte Alban in Oaxaca, what exactly are we looking at? How much of these buildings have been reconstructed? In Cuba when staying at a casa particular, are we seeing how “the people” actually live? Or are they just trying to earn a buck? (I suspect the latter.)

The sad part is, in my opinion, many people who seek these experiences do so as an ego trip, not to help make the world a better place.

Larry J. Clark 05.13.10 | 9:19 PM ET

I like this discussion.  But it makes my head spin a little.

I know that much of what we see in Warsaw was totally rebuilt.  But I don’t confuse it with authentic.  I do see it as a representation that memorializes the past.  So the buildings aren’t authentic, but the memorialization is. 

I’m contemplating a project that will involve recording sound in Potomac wetlands.  And I’ll get these urban sounds too.  That’s just as authentic as a swamp in the middle of Panama where nothing civilized can be heard—but some might not see my Potomac sounds as authentic because they are not “pure”.

If I’ve got this right—“authentic” is often just a codeword for other words—that may be codewords themselves. 05.14.10 | 8:54 AM ET

Travel is person and authentic travel is what you make out of your travel experiences.  Some travelers prefer to travel without a plan, while some prefer to plan a little.  Some prefer to take a backpack filled with the bare essentials, while others pack every single electronic gadget they own.  As long as you get something out of your travels that’s all that matters. 05.14.10 | 9:04 AM ET

Oops!  I meant “travel is personal.”

pam 05.14.10 | 1:23 PM ET

It’s like you’re INSIDE MY HEAD, Andrew Potter. GET OUT OF THERE, it’s too crowded already.

I have this rant I go on about defining “authenticity”. It’s a word that’s been leeched dry of meaning, I think, and become an eye-of-the-beholder sort of thing. I think of Vegas when I think of authenticity, as in, wow, fake Paris, fake Venice, fake Valhalla (the craptastic Excalibur). But Vegas is its own reality, you know, and that artifice is part of what makes Vegas be Vegas. That plastic veneer is so much of what is “authentic Vegas”—if there can be such a thing.

Tautological, maybe, but I suspect you get my meaning. Thanks so much for this, Andrew and World Hum.

Laura 05.14.10 | 1:48 PM ET

What a great post.  It’s very timely with vacation season ramping up and unpacks a lot of loaded concerns people may be harboring.  I especially appreciate the perception that, yes, authentic travel does exist, and the truth of the cost.

Chuck Kirchner 05.14.10 | 11:44 PM ET

It reminds me of being in Paris and going to a restaurant recommended in the Rick Steves guidebook - a guidebook series that stresses local and authentic experiences.  We spoke with the chef/owner and he noted that only Americans ate at his restaurant anymore - locals had long abandoned it.  So much for an authentic experience.  Its a difficult thing for travelers, and travel writers in particular to address - mentioning a wonderful, local, “authentic” experience and having it change as a result, at least in part, of our interaction and promotion.

Randy LeGrant 05.15.10 | 10:29 PM ET

I have two issues.
1.  Someone commented above that if you pay money for something, it is not authentic.  I bought ice cream today and it was authentic ice cream…not made with milk and powder.  I bought my son a cell phone today and it works and does everything the manual says it will do.  When we generalize about “spending money” on something, therefore it isn’t authentic…we run into the danger of not being open to authenticity…no matter where it may be lurking.  Tomorrow I’m headed to the farmer’s market to pay money for authentic fruits and veggies.

2.  Throwing money at a volunteer project.  Most projects, including clinics in Nepal, are run by volunteers.  If you even show up, the person on duty may not have a clue that you’re even supposed to be there.  Throwing money at the project can end up in the wrong hands, never making it to the community or project it was supposed to reach.  When in fact, hiking 3 days to get to the project and rolling up your sleeves to do good is certainly FAR more authentic than tossing some money their way.

You can work in a soup kitchen and not know how to cook.  You can chop veggies.  Never used a knife?  Stand up on that chair and fetch a few pots and pans and fill them up with water.  Take plates to the tables.  Set out the cups and glasses.  There is ALWAYS a chore needing to be done to help those who need a day away from the project and to fill in.  Money will not do a bit of good.

BeccaHare 05.16.10 | 11:35 AM ET

Living in Los Angeles, I marvel about the authenticity of most of the food I eat when I am away from home. The sign says Chinese but the chef is clearly not Chinese. In fact, a great many excellent cooks and food preparers are Hispanic. Does that mean my food is not authentic if the recipe and the ingredients originated in China? Hmmm…
I got stranded at Hotel Wan, in Turkey because I failed to realize the plane from Wan to Istanbul only flew once a week on Tuesdays. My train from Tehran was late and POOF! There I was having an “authentic” experience in a rural hotel in Turkey, until the cockroaches converged and I decided to take a bus instead of waiting for the next plane. Talk about authentic…the bus had two drivers and we stopped along the way to eat freshly baked bread, veggie stew and other delicious food I have never seen in any guide book.
The trip was unplanned. I was supposed to be going on an extended vacation to Anatolia, Turkey, but my plans changed at the last minute. Afterward, I was told that my trip was potentially dangerous and not recommended because there were bandits in the mountains who robbed buses and trucks along our route. No one on the bus spoke English. So what? I was in Turkey and had no such expectation. I felt perfectly safe and I am not a “thrill seeker.”  According to your interview, I may have accidentally had an “authentic” experience.

jc 05.17.10 | 6:39 PM ET

It’s a funny tension and I feel like I’d have to read the book to grasp the whole thesis.

There’s a travel lexicon that chafes many.  We look for the words to describe what we are looking for or have felt and find them uncomfortable or incomplete: Authentic. Local.

I also take issue with voluntourism but the problem this interview highlights is less one distillable by economics - my experiences (and that of prominent African intellectuals like Dambisa Moyo) suggest money isn’t necessarily the solution.  The problem that you highlight is that people from aid-giving countries don’t pause to consider what their actual skill set is and where it would be of value.  If you’re an engineer, don’t bother with the sutures.  If you’re a teacher, think twice about going to build houses.  Also, many of these exchanges are mutually beneficial as the local skilled practioners trade knowledge with the international visitors, and should not be characterized as “volunteering” at all but rather another form of education. 

I also wish more people would attend to the slums they keep in their own backyards before running off for a more exotic photo op with someone (probably a chid, or the alternate favorite: a peasant worker with a toothless but wide and welcoming smile, preferably with kind wrinkles).

Jeremy 05.20.10 | 9:32 PM ET

Great, great interview Michael. Andrew, your book sounds fascinating.

As someone who admits to looking for the types of “authentic” traveler experiences you describe, I think it ends up becoming a constant balancing act. One one hand, I definitely appreciate the instinct of travelers to pursue the “authentic” because I ultimately think it brings us to better experiences and with people that would otherwise not necessarily have a chance to participate in the kind of mass tourism you describe.

On the other hand I find it hard to tolerate anyone who wields their authentic experience over others as somehow superior - as you pointed out so well in this interview, authenticity is totally subjective and whatever you personally find to be meaningful is the most important decision of all. I encourage anyone searching for “authentic” experiences on their travels to look anywhere and everywhere - sometimes a local mall can be just as interesting as a church or museum.

Houston Divorce Mediation 05.24.10 | 2:24 PM ET

Insightful answers. Great reading about traveling and vacation experiences.

Europe Budget Planner 06.01.10 | 10:24 AM ET

This is one of my favorite posts! I think to have an “authentic” experience you have to go to great lengths to become more than an outsider looking in. Whether you’re staying somewhere for a longer period of time, interacting with locals for more reasons than simply observance (such as work or volunteer) or finding some way to merge your routine with the new culture around you, all of these things lead to more authentic travel. If you book a tour (not that there’s anything wrong with that for people who enjoy them) then you will have great difficulty becoming anything more than an outsider looking in.

Now, off to buy this book :).

Sean O' 06.01.10 | 12:15 PM ET

I agree with jc, “I feel like Id have to read the book to grasp the whole thesis.”  “Authenticity” is definitely the cliche word of the past decade, but it does refer to a legitimate contrast between one type of experience and another.

Thanks for the thoughtful Q&A

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.