Helen Jennings discusses the pursuit of authenticity.
Authenticity has become the touch stone for tourist operators seeking to entice visitors to undertake a frequently expensive experience. The word is used as some kind of guarantee of a real, objective, truthful experience. The term is used frequently despite the fact that many seasoned travellers secretly sneer at such blandishments, weary of such overt salesmanship. So perhaps one reason why we fall for such enticements is a desire to poke fun at whatever we are offered.
What is sad however is, if a large number of people really do see the word authentic as some kind of guarantee of something genuine. Given the range of abuses, it might almost be safe to say beware of anything that advertises itself as authentic. In philosophical terms what could the claim possible entail? How can anybody describe anything from the past as authentic? The term might be useful when describing furniture, art and other material objects but certainly cannot be used to portray any full sense of how people lived in the past or today. And there is always the problem that authenticity is dependent on a personal point of view.
Take the case of the representation of indigenous peoples, it might seem common sense, that if these sites are run and managed by representatives of such people they will somehow be more ‘authentic’ . They may certainly offer more comment on a group previously hidden by history than many supposedly ‘national’ museums and art galleries, yet there is a growing awareness that many indigenous peoples come under pressure to ‘revive’ ‘traditions’ and customs to the benefit of tourists. This can range from placing the ubiquitous tepee whenever ‘Native Americans’ are mentioned, to the continuance of bodily mutilation for the consumption of tourists.
Why should we be concerned about the pervasive use of this term, especially if we feel large numbers of people are well aware of the problem it raises. The answer lies in that we should always be concerned about a term that makes great claims and could be deeply dishonest. It sets up a tension with other sights suggesting that they are then ‘inauthentic’
Those of us who express doubts about the term authenticity should beware of feeling too smug. There is no denying the emotional pull of getting as close as we can to some ‘real’ connection with a different or past culture. For this is surely the essence of tourism. What we, who are involved in tourism concern are constantly striving for, is a means of raising standards in this industry, raising consciousness of the issues for providers and consumers alike.