What is Authentic Travel?
Yesterday I received a spammy email from a travel company that offers “authentic tours” to India. The company’s name is not important because it’s one of hundreds that send similar messages to my inbox every week. Yay, email!
As someone that’s fairly receptive to travel information (and has a relentless curiousity about India), I clicked through to see what this company had to offer. The language and tone of the website positioned the company as one that “goes beyond the brochure” to find “unique and authentic” travel experience.
My curiousity kicked in, so I continued to read. But the more I read, the more I began to question the meaning of authentic travel experiences.
According to this company, authentic travel meant visiting all of the tourist hotspots in northern India – and in record time I might add (14 days to visit 11 cities – yowzers!). Tours had guests sleeping in westernized 4-star hotels, transported in fancy air-conditioned coaches and dining at buffet-style tourist restaurants. It looked interesting, but it also looked exhausting.
Let’s be clear – there is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of travel (we’ve been on several organized tours and had a great time – I fully support not thinking when on vacation).
Most casual travelers don’t want to step too far outside of their comfort zone – and that’s okay, it’s about personal preferences. Given the insane price point of these “authentic tours” to India, I think it’s safe to say that its target customers do not ride public transit in their hometown – so I can’t imagine they would want to ride an uncomfortable, overcrowded bus in India.
Okay, let’s be honest – who really wants to ride an overcrowded bus in India?
But I question the authenticity of such a trip.
By definition, authentic means “not false or copied; of undisputed origin; original; genuine; real”. So my question is – can a company really claim that its tours are authentic if they run the same tours every week?
I began reflecting on my personal travel experiences, the ones that felt the most original and worthy of the title “authentic”.
Let’s stick with India – the Taj Mahal specifically.
Wandering around the extravagant marble mausoleum was an incredible experience, one that I’ll never forget. We snapped countless photos and sat speechless as the morning sun climbed over the world famous monument. The moment was special, it was personal, it was wonderful, but I wouldn’t classify it as authentic. Millions of others have shared a similar experience within the gates of the Taj Mahal complex.
Therefore, by definition, this cannot be labeled as authentic – can it?
For me, the most memorable and meaningful Taj Mahal experience happened on the rooftop restaurant of a budget hotel, located a few blocks away (the spot where the above photo was captured).
Our stomachs lead us to this unassuming, poorly advertised restaurant. We were looking for an outdoor venue to enjoy the sunshine and soak up the Taj Mahal views.
A young employee barked at us as we passed by, raving about the fantastic unobstructed views of his restaurant. We entertained his offer and climbed the sketchy stairs to his makeshift rooftop restaurant. The restaurant was empty, so we knew we were taking a chance – we had already suffered a serious bout of Dehli Belly, so we were playing it cautious (not an easy task in India).
Because we were the only guests in the restaurant, our server began chatting with us. He was a young man, clearly educated and eager to practice his English. We were not in a hurry, there was no tour bus waiting to whisk us away to another attraction, so we obliged and asked him to sit with us. We helped him with his pronunciation and we answered his questions about the language. We exchanged stories about our home countries and compared our very different cultures.
It was an interesting afternoon, an unexpected travel experience that has made a lasting impression on us and our views of India.
Street views of Agra from the rooftop restaurant, a few short blocks from the Taj Mahal
At some point in the conversation we realized that he too was having a cultural experience. He was just as curious about us as we were of him. By stepping outside the tourist bubble and breaking down our own walls, we were able to have a meaningful connection with a resident of Agra. For a moment, we understood what life was like for a young Indian man filled with enthusiasm and hope for India’s future.
Now, one can argue that such an experience has nothing to do with the Taj Mahal, but I challenge that thought. The Taj Mahal was the purpose for our visit to Agra and we chose that particular restaurant because it boasted views of the Taj Mahal. I’m not saying we were the first people to dine at this rooftop restaurant, but this experience was our own. It was not planned, it was not fabricated – it was genuine and real.
I question whether we could have had such an experience on said authentic tour?
What do you think – can a tour operator really claim to offer “authentic travel experiences”? Or does one need to step outside the “organized tour” to fully experience authenticity?
Share your feedback in the comments section below, we’re curious about your thoughts!