So far my posts have covered small things to help travellers access more authentic experiences. These have been relatively undemanding, small ideas, as I truly believe that small things, when taken together, make a difference.
Today I explore authenticity at a broader level –because reflecting is an equally important part of authentic travel. So heads up: I’m about to get geeky again. In this post I summarize the first of several different approaches to understanding authenticity, as it affects travel. And I fully recognize there is seldom full agreement on what the term “authenticity” means. In Part 1 I discuss the debate about whether travel commodifies culture.
1. Cultural Commodification and Travel
Some critics of tourism in general, and of tourist attractions and entertainment specifically, claim travellers are commodifying local culture. This means that locals will cheapen their own culture to ensure it appeals to tourists. (Perhaps locals do this to redress poverty; sometimes they do this just out of a desire to get ahead.) They will present only the most simple, superficial aspects of it so that it can be marketed to outsiders. And in the process, they will spend less energy keeping alive those aspects of their culture that are less marketable, but give it meaning and enable it to have a positive influence on local lives (beyond the financial). So this type of critique argues that the very process of tourism kills authenticity.
Sounds harsh, right? And doesn’t it take a lot of the fun out of travelling to worry about that kind of thing?
Well, this might resonate with you more if you reflect for a moment on the Christian holiday of Christmas –because something comparable has been going on there. For any of us with a spiritual tradition that celebrates this holiday, the emphasis on buying, buying, buying, and the stress of ensuring everything is perfect for our family Christmas dinners (particularly in terms of the things we have to buy in order to make them so) makes the whole thing start to leave a bad taste for us. The commercial aspect of this holiday wasn’t always so pronounced. In fact, it wasn’t originally meant to be part of it. But –like it or not—the commercial aspect is part of Christmas at the moment. And as more and more of us resent this, we find ourselves investing less energy in even the positive aspects of the tradition, while complaining more about the tradition generally. We also try to reduce the impact of the negatives of the holiday, by avoiding its more commercialized symbols and reducing their presence in our lives.
Similar things can happen for practitioners of other cultural traditions, including festivals, art, music, and celebrating sacred spaces. A good example for me came with my first exposure to Hawaiian culture as a holidaying child in the 1970s. Essentially this culture was portrayed commercially as focused on model-perfect 20-something girls in bikini tops (or worse, coconut shell bras) and grass skirts shaking their hips to the same cheesy song everywhere we went. Often they were Caucasian, too. Performances that emphasized this take on hula dancing were clearly catering to its commercial aspect (sex and sexiness sell). And yet they made the hula seem tawdry -an empty husk of what it really represented to the Hawaiian people as a part of their traditional way of life. But fortunately the story didn’t end there, and the hula did not die out.
Since that time, the Hawaiian people have taken important steps in reclaiming and strengthening their culture in ways that, first and foremost, resonate for them. For some good reading on how this has been happening, check out some of these resources (click here). This also includes efforts to revive the practice of men’s hula (click here ). Hawaiians reached to find a hint of what was authentic about the hula for them, and nurtured it so that the authentic eventually overtook the commercial.
There are other things to reflect on around the commodification question. Not all aspects of commodification have to be bad. Poverty can also be pretty awful; while the money that tourist-oriented cultural performances /art sales can generate the funds needed to support certain ways of life. On this aspect of the debate, the argument goes like this: people should be allowed to make a living -and as long as people from that culture remain in charge of how their local culture. If they pick and choose how to represent the culture, they are more likely to portray it respectfully.
So what should a traveller take away from this debate on authenticity? There are no easy answers. But when choosing where to invest your travel dollar, you may want to reflect on the following points:
- Who is in control of how this culture is being represented?
- How are local practitioners of this tradition / knowledge keepers being compensated?
- To what extent does making this festival/art/music to outsiders take away from its more traditional use/ access for local / Indigenous people to whom it belongs? And on a related note, are local / Indigenous people welcome as audience members / consumers at this same venue that I plan on attending?
- Are there ways that attending this performance/ consuming this culture as a tourist helps give back to its Indigenous practitioners?
Just on the topic of Hawaii, on more recent trips, so many more hula performances have been given by community clubs and classes, that have sprung up to make this practice more accessible to community members- and these performances have included lots of grannies and young children, whose family members have also been cheering them on from the audience. In my view, participating as an audience member in these circumstances does feel authentic, because it reinforces and validates a local practice that is benefiting local people. Of course, this can be a challenging line to draw, and in some cases it’s hard to be sure whether participating as a tourist is a good or a bad thing. The key thing is to be mindful, and to try to appreciate the local perspectives.
Next time I post on this angle, I will look at the very notion of authenticity as a commodity. That won’t be for a few weeks- don’t want to bog you down with too much geekiness all at once.)