In Search of the Authentic Travel Experience

The perils of obsessing about keeping it real.
Actors Singapore Universal Studios
Actors representing "The Mummy" franchise at Universal Studios, Singapore. Photo: Sarah Ackerman/Flickr/Creative Commons (

I am sitting on Sesame Street and Marilyn Monroe—complete with flouncy white dress and bouncy, bare shoulders—has just traipsed past me. I want to kiss her cheek but she disappears too quickly into an alley between the Hollywood Derby (Haberdasher to the Stars) and the Spaghetti Space Chase (a ride). A bunch of less hesitant aunties from Hong Kong charged determinedly after her, their selfie sticks held aloft like brandished swords.

This is Universal Studios in Singapore, a theme park that transmogrifies your movie memories, projecting them onto fabulous rides, mazes, shows, and shops. From hurtling down scarab-infested rails in ancient Egypt to making prehistoric loops around Jurassic Park, the place is a ceaseless imitation, an authentic replica of the original fiction. An oxymoron, you say? We will get to that.

Universal Studios Marilyn Monroe impersonator Singapore

A Marilyn Monroe impersonator at Universal Studios, Singapore. Photo: Erwin Soo/Flickr/Creative Commons (

Universal Studios is one among a legion of global amusement brands (Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Everland, Legoland, Lotte World… the list goes on) that have perfected the art of make-believe. Millions line up at their gates, forking out impressive sums of money—sometimes planning whole vacations around it—to be a part, to believe for a bit that these fabulous, fantastic, storybook worlds have come alive, been made real.

It’s not just amusement parks and museums that offer genuinely fake experiences, cities do too. Walking around the Old Town in Tallinn, Estonia, admiring its medieval ramparts and cobblestone streets, I was frequently accosted by Hanseatic barmaids, in full costume, who wanted me to step into their stone tavern where I could enjoy some meade and wipe my mouth with the back of my hands like it was the 10th century AD once again, never mind the fully Soviet-era city that Tallinn is outside of this little bubble. And what to say of Macau whose casinos are complete worlds unto themselves, their bizarre shapes and gargantuan proportions dwarfing the city’s gentler, and more historic, districts.

To speak of things that one wants to connote as real, wrote the semiotician Umberto Eco in his book Travels in Hyperreality, things must seem real. The “completely real” becomes identified with the “completely fake”, he writes. “Absolute unreality is offered as real presence. Not the image of the thing, but its plaster cast. Its double, in other words. ”Surrealist painter Rene Magritte’s iconic work, The Treachery of Images, which shows a drawing of a smoking pipe and beneath it, the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe), is a classic illustration of how we sometimes confuse an image with the real thing, and get misled about what is authentic and what is not.

For a travel snob like me, it is easy (and tempting) to judge these “hyper real” travel experiences as, well, inauthentic. Like so many others, I am a sucker for “authenticity” in travel. I will travel farther, spend more, suffer, do whatever it takes if the promise at the end of it is a more authentic experience. Unfortunately this has made “authentic” the most abused word in the travel trade. There is seemingly no end to the number of authentic experiences that you can buy, and more importantly, there are no limits to the nature of those experiences either. Everything goes.

It is fine, I suppose, to be peddled authentic everything, even if, by being offered – by being bought and sold as experiences – they no longer remain wholly authentic but perhaps that is to be expected. In this age, with constant information and commentary, it is impossible to aspire to an ultra pure, flawless authenticity; everything is a little bit corrupted. One can still live with that, make peace with it. Where our obsession with authenticity becomes a problem is when it begins to bear upon the lives of others, and bear in ways that insult, exploit, or even harm them.

The infamous township tours of South Africa and the favela safaris of Rio de Janeiro, for example, have always been a controversial mode of seeing a place. On the face of it, these tours offer travellers access to a more “authentic” view by highlighting aspects of society that have fallen off the margins, and stand in stark contrast to the images in tourist brochures. Yet, when made into a spectacle, fitted roughshod into a tour itinerary and then manipulated to produce very specific sorts of interaction, it comes dangerously close to self-indulgent voyeurism. Some tours, in fact, never actually create the space for dialogue or interaction, simply bussing tourists through a township or favela, windows rolled up, air-conditioning on full blast, police escorts following behind for the safety of the visitors.

Worse, it runs the risk of perpetuating an economic model that has a stake in people remaining poor and dispossessed, so that they can be viewed. As this blog post eloquently argues, “these tours extinguish the possibilities for communal, self-sustaining collaborative strategies for effective activism. Because the relationship is from the onset one of observer and observed, it removes possibilities of identifying mutual points of struggle. It sets the template for interaction at a ‘you vs. us’ level, removing the possibilities of a ‘we’ interaction.”

Dharavi workshop

A sewing workshop in Dharavi. Photo: M M/Flickr/Creative Commons (

Just as fraught are the slum tours in Mumbai which offer an “authentic” taste of India in its alleyways. Don’t get me wrong. I think it is a terrific idea for travellers to leave the precincts of Colaba and Bandra and journey farther, to seek to get beneath the skin of the city in all its light and shadow. There is much to see and learn in Dharavi, not least the creativity and industry of its residents and the resilience of human spirit. But if the motivation driving that journey is an obsession with authenticity, and a very specific idea of what such authenticity looks like, feels like, smells like, in other words, to see a “four-dimensional” version of Slumdog Millionaire, then they should buy a ticket to a film studio theme park.

Sometimes, there is a lot more at stake. In Cambodia, orphanage tourism has created a despicable economy where parents find it more profitable to admit children into orphanages because they are a magnet for foreign tourists interested in accessing an authentic Cambodia. A Unicef report in 2009 suggested that most of the children in Cambodian orphanages are not orphans! Orphanage tourism is horrible not only for ripping apart families, but also for deliberately keeping conditions pathetic enough to elicit adequate amounts of sympathy and donations from tourists.

Can we be so blinded by our search for authenticity that we wholly un-see a place and its people? Can we be so unconscious of our privilege as travellers, of our power amplified through a structural system of commerce and consumption, that we feed our lust for authenticity at any cost? Or can we let it be, choose to not access everything, to not peer into every nook, to not pry or ogle or stare or barge into places simply because we can. And if we still must crave for such experiences, can we do it without making it about ourselves, about the great photos we can get, the egos we can puff up by being in a far, dark corner of the world where others haven’t gone. Instead, can we let the experience alter our perspective, change our mind, make us give up control?

In Sri Lanka, I eagerly drove down to Ahangama, along the coastal curve of Galle Road, hoping to see the fishermen on stilts – an authentic Lankan experience if there is one. From all the photographs I had seen – and there are millions – it is a unique sight, fishermen perched upon bamboo poles rising out of the sea, their legs in a tangle of angles, catching fish with their reed-like rods. I had thought it might take some discovering, seeing how this was not a sight I could buy a ticket to, but a most authentic thing. Maybe I would have to walk for miles on end along the coast with eyes wide open for these fishing villages that had kept their tradition intact through centuries. It seemed so…local…that I wasn’t even sure what to tell the taxi. Surely not “fishermen on sticks”.

As it happens, that’s exactly what I said, and my driver knew exactly where to go. But it turned out to be quite a different experience than the one I had prepared for.

Fishermen Sri Lanka Stilts

Fishermen on stilts, Sri Lanka. Photo: Joanne Goldby/Flickr/Creative Commons (

Thanks to how much of a tourist draw the scene has become, the fishermen in Ahangama have turned professional. Yes, they still climb bamboo poles rising from the sea, but instead of catching fish, they now pose for the cameras. There is a fee to be paid and if you don’t pay up, be prepared for some burly insults and even the threat of bodily harm. When I was there, a whole bunch had rounded upon a woman who had imagined this sight innocent and tried to capture it au naturel and sans payment.

Was it disappointing? Maybe for half a minute. Driving away, without having taken a picture, I felt quite pumped up about the fact that these fishermen had turned the tables on us and taken charge of their place – and worth – in our travel. To witness their response to tourism, to find them negotiating (not begging), to remind us that this is their home turf, not ours, and certainly not of any tour operator or tourist guide – that felt pretty darn authentic.

Travel isn’t innocent. Where we go, what we do, what we see – these are all choices we make. We must also accept and bear the consequences. Craving authenticity at all costs – without doing the hard work of research (no, TripAdvisor doesn’t count), without investing our empathy (never sympathy), without removing ourselves from the centre of it all (it is not about the selfie!) – is the surest way to turn travel into a mere postcard, like Magritte’s painting of the pipe. Instead, so much better to look beyond the image and into ourselves, interrogate our curiosities and ways of seeing, to be aware and take responsibility. Through that looking glass, all travel is made authentic.


    Abhijit Dutta is a writer and the former travel editor at Mint Lounge. He tweets as @abhijit1507.


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