Tourism Dilemmas

Why tourists thirst to do 'authentic' stuff – and how they can discover it

From Chinese tourists in Kidlington, to Brits it in Rio, everyone wants an authentic experience of lifestyles, food and culture.

It has been a bumper year for tourists for the small village of Kidlington in Oxfordshire, England. Those on national, international and social media were left scratching their heads, when an unexpected flood of Chinese tourists descended on the town. Groups of curious travellers could be seen roaming down residential streets, taking pictures with locals and even entering gardens.

A survey by the BBC revealed that these tourists were searching for “the true sense” of the UK. It seems that Chinese travel agencies, driven by consumer pressure, have added towns such as Kidlington to the itinerary, in an attempt to give tourists a taste of a traditional English village.

The quest for authenticity  

China has become the biggest source of tourism in the world, and a growing number of Chinese tourists have been setting out to experience overseas countries. These travellers are no longer satisfied with superficial tourist activities – instead, they’re searching for an in-depth understanding of their destinations. In other words, they want to experience authentic local lifestyles, customs and culture.

Research has shown that Chinese tourists are driven by a desire to see what is “normal” at the destinations they travel to. This is one reason why more Chinese tourists are organising and travelling independently as opposed to being solely reliant on a travel agent or prepackaged holidays.

Yet this trend is not just specific to Chinese travellers: a 2016 Expedia study found that millennials from all over the world prioritise authenticity in their travel experience. What’s more, they have the power to pursue it – thanks to sites such as Skyscanner and Last Minute, travellers have the means to design a personalised itinerary, according to their interests, while companies such as Airbnb and Home Stay allow them to interact with locals at their destinations.

Disneyfication  

Yet it’s still not exactly clear what makes an experience “authentic”. Authenticity is generally associated with something that is genuine, real, or true. This could mean simple, rural or natural experiences, like those offered by travel schemes such as Workaway or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Or it could be embodied in gritty, even difficult experiences – from slum tourism in Rio de Janiero, to homeless tourism in Prague and toxic tourism.

Slum tourism.  joaolima./Flickr, CC BY-NC
Slum tourism. joaolima./Flickr, CC BY-NC

But authenticity is a pretty complex idea – what one person sees as an authentic experience, another may view as a sham. And if a person believes they are getting an authentic experience, it may not matter whether it’s spontaneous or staged. So, it seems that authenticity is constructed by a person’s interaction with, and interpretation of, the social and physical environment.

One can argue that an “authentic tourism experience” is a contradiction in terms. When places or experiences are discovered and populated by tourists, they ultimately change by the demands of tourists themselves and the economic opportunity this presents to providers. The presence of tourism can lead to “Disneyfication” – when a place becomes contrived in order to sell itself to consumers – and can expose local people and cultures to manipulation and exploitation. And so, the tourists’ search for authenticity continues.

Co-creation  

It doesn’t have to be this way, though: the strategy of “co-creation” offers an attractive alternative within the search for authenticity. Under this strategy, value is created as tourists help to construct their own experience by engaging with each other, the tourism provider and also local people.

Tourism operators in many countries are now providing different types of tourism products, which co-create an authentic tourism experience. For instance, in Australia, tourists can participate in indigenous tourism activities such as traditional festivals, dances and guided tours, together with Aboriginal Australians. Another example is the cookery classes offered in South-East Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. Here, tourists have the opportunity to cook with a local chef using local ingredients, recipes and cooking techniques.

Going local. Ironypoisoning/Flickr, CC BY-SA
Going local. Ironypoisoning/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Tourism campaigns are also finding use for this strategy. Hong Kong’s “I never knew” campaign invites locals and previous visitors to share their stories about Hong Kong, with the ambition to co-create authentic experiences by allowing tourists to tap into local knowledge, rather than focusing on the major tourism offerings.

Authenticity is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity in the tourism industry, as more and more tourists seek to immerse themselves in local cultures and environments. What makes for an authentic experience will differ from one person to the next – from eating at a local restaurant, to visiting war-torn conflict zones. Tourism providers may be feeling the pressure to come up with more and more original “authentic” experiences. But it’s actually an opportunity – now providers can to give people the power to co-construct their own authenticity … just like those Chinese tourists in Kidlington.

Adam Dennett, Lecturer in Tourism and Events Management, University of Huddersfield and Hanqun Song, Senior Lecturer in Tourism and Hospitality Management, University of Huddersfield.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

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Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.