What is authentic travel?
Thinking back to the last times I've travelled, there has been something of a common thread - a quest for discovering an 'authentic local' experience. Instead of turning to travel guides, we'd search for native blogs and Instagram posts. We'd try to find secret neighborhood gems - a little tapas bar or a wine cafe only people living nearby know. When I asked my friends about how they discovered things while visiting, everyone seemed to have their own rituals and goals for their vacations.
Anthropology teaches us that while all tourists experience some encounter with the ‘Other’ in their travels, there are profound differences in how willing they are to immerse themselves within the local culture and how they assess the ‘authenticity’ of their experience. A desire for authenticity, according to Erik Cohen, is not evenly distributed among tourists. While some hope to embrace the “Other” and turn it into his or her elective center, others are content with a kind of “staged authenticity” that allows them experience the “other” with an attitude “of playful make-believe” and others still have no interest in engaging with it at all. The varying desires for authenticity—and judgments of what is or is not authentic—opens up different niches in the marketplace for producers and corporations.
As they cater to the varying consumer expectations and demands, such companies create greater market appeal by leveraging regional heritages. As Cavanaugh and Shankar write, notions of authenticity that are produced “thorough both material and linguistic means… [can] generate cultural and economic value.” This linguistic construction of authenticity, they continue, is not done merely by “label[ling] or describ[ing] something as authentic; … it involves precisely defining the features that makes something authentic, contesting others’ definitions, all in order to produce economic value for particular objects.” Arguably, this can be seen in the advertising of experiences as well as consumable goods.
When I was visiting some friends still studying in Oxford, I noticed how different tour groups differentiate themselves based on different "authentic" levels of experience. A tourist visiting Oxford has many options for acclimatizing themselves to the city and seeing its sights. She can walk around by herself, reading the little plinths put up that describe significant historic events or name the so-and-so who lived nearby. Or, she could embark on an hour long City Sightseeing RED bus tour and listen to a recorded commentary about the history of important landmarks in one of 17 languages on offer. As a local offshoot of a large tour-bus chain, it may also be a format that she is familiar with although not one that she would connect to particularly local experience.
If she is looking for a more ‘grounded’ experience, she could join one of the walking tours from Broad Street. One of these is the Footprints Tour Group, which advertises itself as “not a big faceless organization, but a group of students and locals determined to show visitors the best Oxford has to offer.” Clearly presenting itself in opposition to mass corporations (and based itself locally within the community), the tour group appeals to a consumer with a desire for a more genuine experience of the city. Indeed, the Footprints pamphlet declares that this “authentic tour by Oxford students” can help her “discover the drama behind some of the most beautiful locations in Oxford” through “privileged access” to the University. It claims that by the end of the tour, she would have “a real feel for the University” and knowledge of its “bizarre traditions and funny stories”. Consider the language used here—‘behind the scenes’ and ‘privileged access’ connote a kind of second-stage behind the curtain. It suggests a deeper reality that exists both literally within closed off University quads and within the experiences of the student life. This experience is somewhat exoticized as ‘bizarre,’ which makes the guides’ role as a former insider—an alumni of Oxford—all the more important. The ‘authenticity’ and authority embodied by the tour guides and their past is conveyed to the tour brand. This is somewhat ironic since, as I discovered in interviewing a guide, the tour leaders are carefully scripted with a 33-page booklet on pertinent facts about the city. Their expertise comes from their extensive training with the guide brand, not necessarily from their own experiences within the city. And yet, as Cavanaugh and Shankar write, “if the depictions of time and place are not just right in terms of how they depict heritage…, they will neither make sense nor make money.” The authority of the former student—conveyed through their presence, but also through their ability to talk like an insider—is vital to the success of the tour brand. The real judge of this is, of course, how our theoretical tourist responds to the claim. If she believes its promise—and this promise aligns with her desires and expectations for ‘authentic’ local experiences—she is likely to choose this tour option. In such a way, to position a product geared towards tourists, marketers need to understand the level of authenticity required by their ideal customers.
 Cohen, E. (1988). Authenticity and Commoditization in Tourism. Annals of Tourism Research 15 (3): 371-86. P. 376.
 ibid, p. 377.
 Cavanaugh, J and S, Shankar. 2014. Producing Authenticity in Global Capitalism: Language, Materiality, and Value: American Anthropologist 116 (1): 51-64. P. 52.
 ibid, p. 53.
 ibid, p. 52.