Tourists, Travelers, and Authenticity

Image Courtesy of the New York Public Library

I grew up in New York City. I just typed that as NYC, but then realized that that was shorthand. It is a shorthand that many people know, but it is not a shorthand that New Yorkers use. It is a way of expressing Manhattan. Actually, most people visualize Times Square or generic skyscrapers when they use the phrase NYC. They are definitely not talking about the Outer Boroughs. That’s where I grew up. If I wanted to talk about Manhattan, I would say “the City” as in, “I’m going to the City with Dad when he goes to get his paycheck.” My father worked for The Daily News at a time when direct deposit wasn’t a thing. I loved going with him on his day off to get his paycheck. I had the run of the Daily News Building, and after he got his check and cashed it, we’d sometimes go to the Horn & Hardart for a sandwich. That was an authentic New York experience! 

Actually, that was my authentic New York experience. It’s not one a tourist could replicate, even if they had a time machine and could travel back to the 1970s.

When we say we want to travel, we often say that we want to experience the real place. We want to know a place the way the locals know it. We want to eat where they eat and hang out where they hang out. There were a lot of tourists at the Horn and Hardart every time we went, but I doubt that any of them were having an authentic New Yorker experience. They were, however, having an authentic travel experience.

If something is authentic, according to Merriam-Webster, it is worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact. In that sense, the experience of the tourists with whom I was dining was authentic. It is worthy of acceptance and based on fact. They were, in fact, eating at the Horn and Hardart in New York City, which is a place at which many locals ate. As travel experiences go, the one they had come as close as possible to the one that I enjoyed with my Dad so many years ago.

The question then becomes was their experience the one they were hoping to have. I can’t answer that question. If their goal was to eat at an iconic automat in Manhattan, then the answer is yes. If their goal was to eat at a place that a working folks ate, the answer is yes. If their goal was to have the same (or as close to the same) experience that a native New Yorker had when eating there, the answer is no. 

There is no way that they could have the point of reference that my father and I had, or that the other New Yorkers around us were having. Their point of reference was eating in a place that embodied the abstract idea of what New Yorkers did. The New Yorkers around them were just having lunch, not trying to have a quintessential New York experience.

Is it possible to have authentic travel?

Authentic travel implies that somehow one can also have inauthentic travel. Inauthentic travel, if we are to believe tour operators or some travel writers, is travel that does not capture whatever they believe are the  must-sees or their conception of the essence of a location. If you go to New York City, you must see the Empire State Building, Central Park, a Broadway play, Ellis Island/the Statue of Liberty, and a few museums at a minimum. At least, that is what tour guides and travel books tell you. That is the cannon of an authentic New York City trip.

Is it then inauthentic if I ask people what kinds of things they are interested in and then tell them about less well-known things to do and see in the city? What if they go see Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the Louis Armstrong House Museum, the Elevated Acre, and a nondescript house on Staten Island where their grandmother was born? Did they have an authentic travel experience? Is it more authentic if they also take in a Broadway play?

The truth is, all travel is authentic. Travel provides us with experiences that are authentic because we experience them. There is a belief that authenticity is derived from the type of experience we have rather than experience itself. 

Tourists and Travelers

Tourists are often defined as people who travel for defined generally for a short period of time while travelers are thought to be those who travel for longer periods and who travel to experience and learn about new people, places, things, and ideas. Using those two categories, it is easy to say that tourists are less likely to have authentic experiences. After all, if you aren’t actively seeking experiences that are off the beaten path you will never see the local culture the way local people see it. Travelers, on the other hand, are looking for the undiscovered and actively trying to integrate into the local society. A closer look at this, however, reveals that the distinctionsbetween travelers and tourists are not as clear-cut as they might seem.

The question then becomes was their experience the one they were hoping to have.

My friend used to travel a lot. She loved driving from New York City up to Montreal for the weekend and did so frequently. On one of these trips, She and two friends found themselves enjoying the show at a strip club where they met a local woman. The group hit it off, and the next thing my friend knew, she and her companions were invited to dinner at their new friend’s house. It was a grand family affair with a large group of French Canadians all enjoying a meal and chatting in French. My friend doesn’t speak French, so she and her companions were chatting in English at the far end of the table while the patriarch, her new friend’s grandfather, was holding forth at the other end of the table drinking and toasting more than he was eating. At one point, my friend spilled her drink and mumbled “oh fongool” – a less than polite Italian phrase meaning, we’ll say, dammit. Setting her glass upright and seeing that it was almost empty, she drained it. A few moments later, the grandfather stood up, raised his glass, and said “To our new American friends – Ah fongool!”

While they were tourists, only in Montreal for the weekend, they had, by almost any measure, a very authentic (if somewhat embarrassing) experience. Was this the experience she was hoping to have? Probably not, but it was the experience she did have, and it certainly was an experience that helped her learn about new people, places, things, and ideas (and social missteps, but that’s a different article).

Just like tourists can have off-the-beaten-path experiences, travelers can end up missing the local connection. A traveler could spend a month somewhere living in an apartment, shopping at the local grocery, going to the local pub, and using the local laundromat without ever making connections with the people who live there. They might be living in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower or next door to the Serengeti National Park, two must-see places, and never experience what my friend did while only being in Montreal for two days.

Ultimately, the authenticity of an experience is subjective. The people who came to New York City and ate at the Horn and Hardart had as authentic an experience as it felt to them. If it fulfilled their goals, then it was authentic for them. It is worthy of acceptance and based on fact that they took away what they wanted from it. Authenticity helps us build deeper connections with others and ourselves. Traveling, whether long term or short term, helps us build those connections by creating opportunities to have experiences that we otherwise would not have. That is authentic travel. It doesn’t matter if you identify as a tourist or a traveler, the experiences you have will help build better connections to yourself, and, hopefully, connections with other people, places, and ideas.

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