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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.