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Importance of Authenticity in Tourism

Info: 3515 words (14 pages) Essay
Published: 9th Sep 2021 in Tourism

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The purpose of this study record is to explore the theme of authenticity as expounded by different authors. The record will provide an overview of my reading during the course of the year, and will present an examination of the different approaches to the topic by the selected authors, and present these approaches in the wider context of writing on the importance of authenticity in tourism.

Daniel Boorstin (1964, 1985) The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. 2nd ed. New York: Athenaeum

Boorstin writes about the demise of the traveller who seeks authentic experiences and the rise of mass tourism. For Boorstin, real travel belonged to a golden age that was now lost where whatever the traveller saw “was apt to be what really went on there”. Whereas contemporary travel was a pseudo-event made up of “specimens collected and embalmed especially for him, or attractions specifically staged for him” (1961:102).

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Boorstin was adamant that the tourist no longer wanted authenticity, even going so far as to argue that a French singer singing in accented English was more appealing to the Anglophone tourist than the singer singing in her native language. Similarly, says Boorstin (1961: 106), the American visiting Japan is not looking for authentic Japanese culture but rather “what is Japenesey”. These contrived experiences had four characteristics, said Boorstin, they are not spontaneous or natural, they are designed to be reproduced, the relationship between the event and reality is ambiguous, and the contrived event becomes normal over time as it becomes perceived as being authentic.

The theme in Boorstin’s book is that mass tourism is an impediment to experiencing other cultures and that the masses do not want to experience authentic culture anyway, preferring the contrived to the authentic. In reading Boorstin, his scepticism comes through very clearly but also you are left with a lingering sense of the author’s arrogance. True authentic experiences could only be encountered in the golden age when none but the truly wealthy could afford to travel. For Boorstin, the opening of the leisure market to a wider range of social classes ruined the authenticity of the experience for the privileged and the educated and gave access to travel to people who couldn’t possibly understand the experience except at the most base and contrived level. Boorstin’s approach was taken forward by MacCannell who disputed that tourists wanted pseudo-events and it is McCannell’s work we shall consider next.

Dean MacCannell (1989) A new theory of the leisure class. 2nd ed. University of California Press.

This book was first published in 1976 and appears to be cited widely in books and articles on authenticity in tourism. MacCannell writes from the perspective that progressiveness has failed people and people use tourism to give their lives greater sense and meaning, and in seeking sense and meaning in other cultures people are highlighting that they feel isolated and alienated in their own culture. Tourists’ disillusionment with the nature of work in industrial society drives them to travel and to travel further, as they try to penetrate the ‘back’ of life where truth and authenticity can be found.

This notion of life having a ‘front’, ‘back’ and ‘outside’came out of the work of Goffman (1959) who used the metaphor of the stage to examine the perceptions of the individual to the performance. The front stage is the official perspective, while the backstage is presented as being more honest as the individual has an awareness of the disputes and difficulties that are occurring. The outside represents segregation where the individual is unable to gain access to what is going on on stage. Authenticity in tourism, says MacCannell, comes from an awareness of what is going on behind the scenes where all is not sanitised for public consumption.

MacCannell highlights the falseness of the distinction between mass tourist, researcher, travel writer and authentic traveller and puts forward the view that the mass tourist is as much in search of authenticity as the researcher or travel writer. MacCannell notes “longstanding touristic attitude, a pronounced dislike, bordering on hatred, for other tourists, in a they are the tourists I am not equation” (1989: 602). MacCannell’s perspective particularly resonated with me as when travelling I have noticed people, including myself, wanting to distinguish themselves as separate from the masses, somehow being more distinguished or more credible as independent travellers rather than mass tourists. As well as noting the views of those who think that tourism will ultimately destroy itself[1], I’m also starting to recognise the irony of my travelling to seek an authentic travel experience while at the same time willingly participating in the growth of tourism. However, while MacCannell’s perspective does resonate, I would suggest that MacCannell’s position is on one sense just as polarised as Boorstin’s. From Boorstin (1985), we get the perspective that all that tourists want is a superficial and contrived experience, whilst MacCannell proposes that all tourists are in pursuit of the real ‘back’ and authentic experience but are denied this by being presented with inauthenticity. In reality, it seems likely that the truth would be some where in between.

Erik Cohen (1995) Contemporary Tourism-Trends and Challenges: Sustainable Authenticity or Contrived Post-Modernity?, in Change in Tourism: People, Places, Processes, edited by Richard Butler and Douglas Pearce. London: Routledge.

Cohen has written extensively on authenticity in tourism across several decades and as well as challenging existing ideas, it is clear that he has enjoyed conducting fieldwork and written a substantial amount on tourism development in developing countries. Cohen notes that while tourism has hugely benefited the country in terms of economic development there are significant downsides including the growth of Thailand’s sex trade and related criminal activities. Cohen breaks Thailand’s tourism development down into four areas of change. The first is what he terms the massification of the industry which denotes the huge rise in the numbers of tourists entering the country. The second is the dispersion of tourism, from Bangkok and its environs across the country from Phuket in the south to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Tourism is continuing to spread in Thailand, with tourists venturing into the Golden Triangle in the north and into areas such as Krabi in the south. The third change identified by Cohen in that of heterogenisation, which is the process in which the nationalities of the tourists and the variety of attractions and amenities become more similar. Finally, says Cohen, there is regionalization at work. This can be seen by Thailand’s positioning of itself at the heart of an emerging regional tourism industry in Southeast Asia which includes Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

As the tourism industry in Thailand develops, the Thai government is trying to encourage international tourism – due to its greater revenue generating potential – but is also trying to encourage domestic tourism. The reason for this is that domestic tourism minimizes foreign exchange leakage from the economy. The growth in tourism leads to continuing expansion into new areas and the further diversification of tourist activities, including the development of both natural and ‘contrived’ activities. How these activities will balance out depends on dependent the Thai tourist economy depends on Europe, as Cohen notes that European tourists generally prefer contrived attractions such as shopping, theme parks and entertainment facilities. There will also be an increasing discrepancy between the tourist image of an idyllic location and the increasing pollution and urban development of Thailand’s beach towns. The increasing development of Thailand has led some to argue that there should be a greater focus on authentic tourism and ecotourism is particularly promoted by some writers (Bottrill and Pearce, 1995; Honey, 1998). Cohen, however, argues that ecotourism principles are applicable to any type of tourism and that stringent or exclusive definitions of ecotourism are unnecessarily restrictive.

From Cohen’s perspective, most tourists engage in mass tourist activities as well as alternative activities. The desire for authenticity can be measured by the tourist’s willingness to forgo comforts such as comfort itself, familiarity and convenience in order to achieve what they perceive is a more authentic experience. Mass tourism and authentic tourism are not alternatives but a spectrum or continuum where the search for authenticity can be observed and measured. The importance of Cohen’s work is in how it has continued to challenge and develop our understanding of authenticity. As we saw earlier, McCannell’s (1976) scholarship focused on the concepts of alienation and authenticity but Cohen took this further. Cohen broadened McCannell’s conceptions and applied them to tourists’ perceptions of authenticity.

Cohen has also developed the work of Boorstin[2]. As has been noted, Boorstin was very pessimistic about authenticity and his approach remained that of a sceptic. For Cohen, however, the idea of a universal authenticity was questioned and challenged. Cohen comes to the conclusion that authenticity means different things to different people and therefore what appears authentic to one tourist (or host) will not appear authentic to another. Building on this, we can see that the importance of authenticity can also be determined to be socially constructed, and its importance variable depending on the perceptions of the person considering the issue. This appears similar to the theoretical perspectives of the social constructivists where meaning is seen to emerge and is constantly changing. This view appears to have gained some following in tourism research with writers including Dearden and Mitchell (1997) and Sharpley and Sharpley (1997) sharing this perspective.

Auliana Poon (1993) Tourism, Technology and Competitive Strategies. Oxford: CAB International.

Poon writes about alternative tourism and puts forward the view that alternative tourism is more exclusive than mass tourism and is diametrically opposed to mass tourism in terms of consumers, production, technology and management. Poon argues that mass tourism comprises rigidly packaged and inflexible holidays when deviation from the package is rejected because of the cost implications that deviation would incur. There is also a mass replication of identical rooms or apartments to allow the operators to reap the benefits of economies of scale, and there is mass (undifferentiated) marketing again with hotel and holiday branding for reasons of economies of scale. Finally, according to Poon, mass tourism features mass consumption with little regard for the cultures of the tourist destinations.

The alternative, according to Poon is a form of tourism that embraces flexibility and specialisation which provides a more personalised form of tourism. The alternative scenario also gives greater consideration to the tourist destination and actively considers culture and environment. The sustainability of alternative tourist destinations are therefore paramount under alternative tourism and attempts are made to pursue development in a culturally and environmentally sensitive and considered way. The motivation for tour companies to pursue alternative tourism can be seen in the potential it provides to differentiate itself in the marketplace. Mass tourism has saturated the market and to stand out to the consumer the travel companies must offer something different and authenticity is this difference.

Having considered the work of Boorstin and MacCannell, and also Cohen, it becomes more difficult to accept a further attempt to present authenticity as a pure and exclusive form. It is easy to see that the concept of authenticity is useful in an academic sense, as a key component in a model, or a concept in which to frame a debate, but more difficult to see its existence in a pure form. In addition to considering authenticity as the polar opposite of mass tourism, there is another perspective: that mass tourism has merely reinvented itself into a more socially acceptable form. Fernandes (1994: 4) points out, “the mainstream tourism industry has merely tried to invent a new legitimation for itself, the ‘sustainable’ use of the environment including the preservation of nature as an amenity for the already advantaged”.

John Urry (1990) The Tourist Gaze.London: Sage

Urry notes the rapid development of tourism and uses a metaphor of an omnivorous creature to highlight what he sees as tourists devouring the planet in their ‘consuming’ of destinations. Urry (1990:1) states that when we travel “we gaze” and “the gaze is socially constructed”. The gaze is not a single gaze regardless of nationality or social class, but emerges from who we are and goes on to shape us and well as that gazed upon.

Urry charts the development of the tourist industry in the UK and looks at the rise of mass tourism in Victorian Britain the development of the British coastal resorts, the mass tourism provided by holiday camps, and the introduction of a new flexibility from the 1960s onwards as people travelled to European destinations. Mass marketing provided representative images which gave tourists an understanding of the destinations available and these are duplicated in the destinations themselves and in place promotion.

Urry urges the development of the post-mass marketing tourist or what he calls that post-tourist who seeks to find authenticity and shirk the artificial and staged events offered by the tourism operators. This builds on Cohen’s work which argued that the local culture becomes a contrived commodity and, without people’s consent, operators take local culture and renders it meaningless.

Urry’s work has come under criticism with some arguing that he has over-stated the decline of mass tourism. Indeed, package holidays to Orlando and Phuket appear to have a great deal in common in terms of fun and pleasure seeking as the mass tourism in Blackpool of earlier generations. Urry’s ‘gaze’ has been criticised as being inadequate; Prentice (2001) puts forward the need to look at the subjective mental state felt by individuals while Ooi (2002) argues that the subjective nature of experience means that as well as being multi-faceted, “experiences are embodies in people” and can “only be expressed to and not felt by other people”.

Ning Wang (2000) Tourism and Modernity: A Sociological Analysis. Tourism Social Science Series. Oxford: Pergamon.

Having read perspectives from the objectivists Boorstin and MacCannell, and the social constructivist perspectives, it was interesting to see how Wang appeared to bring these perspectives together with a postmodernist perspective, based on the work of Baudrillard and others. Wang argues that authenticity should be broken down into authenticity of object and authenticity of experience. Authenticity of object refers to the authenticity of what is being observed, and this is further broken down into objective, constructive and post modern forms with the post modern form rejecting authenticity completely, while authenticity of experience refers to a person’s own personal experiences.

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Wang puts forward the view that authenticity is not inherent and identified characteristics that can be attributed to the constructivist conceptions of authenticity, namely that there is no fixed origin of authenticity, that what we consider original and authentic can be contested, notions of authenticity are pluralistic, and that authenticity is often declared when something conforms to tourist expectations. Wang also put forward the idea that inauthentic experiences can become authentic over time. This process, which Wang terms ‘emergent authenticity’ was also put forward by Cohen and promotes the primacy of the tourist perception of the experience and, as Picard and Robinson remind us, “all events were once created” and that ranking authenticity is “highly questionable” (2006: 134).

Wang’s focus on a person’s own experiences is interesting as so much of the debate on the importance of authenticity has been about the authenticity of the objects being seen. Wang notes that tourists are “in search of their authentic selves with the aid of activities or toured objects” (2000:360). This search for our authentic selves can be liberating, a desire for experiences that are outside of our daily lives, but can also be restricted by itineraries and other constraints. The importance of authenticity in tourism is, for Wang, a feeling or perceiving of authenticity rather than its fixed existence in cultural objects.


From this study record we can see that many writers have highlighted the importance of authenticity but there is inconsistency about what authenticity entails. For Boorstin, mass tourism ruined any chance of experiencing authenticity and authenticity that not something that the masses sought even if it were attainable. MacCannell considered that authenticity could be equally sought by the mass tourist or researcher but held that the tourism industry was denying the people an authentic experience. Cohen offered a perspective on authenticity that incorporated both the tourist and the host but offered the possibility that one party might consider an experience authentic while the other did not; Poon considered authenticity and mass tourism to be diametrically opposed, while Urry built on Cohen’s work and presented the view that culture had become such a contrived commodity that it had been rendered meaningless. Finally, Wang presented what is almost a capstone perspective, bringing in the earlier objective and constructivist perspectives to present a broader representation of the importance of authenticity as an existential experience.


Boorstin, DJ (1985) The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. 2nd ed. New York: Atheneum

Bottrill, C and D Pearce (1995) Ecotourism: towards a key elements approach to operationalising the concept. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 3, 1, 45-54.

Cohen, E (1995) Contemporary Tourism-Trends and Challenges: Sustainable Authenticity or Contrived Post-Modernity?, in Change in Tourism: People, Places, Processes, ed. Richard Butler and Douglas Pearce. London: Routledge.

Dearden, P and B Mitchell (1997) Environmental Change and Challenge. Oxford University Press.

Fernandes, D (1994) The shaky ground of sustainable tourism. Quarterly Environmental Journal, 2, 4, October-December, 4-38.

Goffman, E (1959) Presentation of self in everyday life. Penguin Books.

Honey, M (1998) Where’s the eco in ecotourism? Connection to the Americas, 15, 2, March, 1-7.

MacCannell, D. (1999) The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. University of California Press

McKercher, B (1993) The unrecognized threat to tourism: can tourism survive sustainability. Tourism Management, 14, 4, 131-136.

Ooi, C-S (2002) Cultural Tourism and Tourism Cultures: The Business of Mediating Experiences in Copenhagen and Singapore. Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School Press.

Picard, D and M Robinson (2006) Festivals, Tourism and Social Change. Channel View Publications.

Poon, A (1993) Tourism, technology and competitive strategies. Oxford: CAB International.

Prentice, R (2001) Experiential Cultural Tourism. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Queen Margaret College

Sharpley, R and J Sharpley (1997) Sustainability and Consumption of Tourism, in MJ Stabler (ed) Tourism and Sustainability. Oxford: CAB International, 231-244.

Urry, J. (1990) The Tourist Gaze, London: Sage.

Wang, N (1999) Rethinking Authenticity in Tourism Experience. Annals of Tourism Research, 26, 2, 349-70.

Wang, N (2000) Tourism and Modernity: A Sociological Analysis. Tourism Social Science Series. Oxford: Pergamon.


[1] See McKercher (1993)

[2] 1961 reprinted 1985


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