The Death of Authenticity: Looking at ‘Authentic’ Travel Experiences

What makes a travel experience authentic?

Nowadays, people are traveling more than ever, and with the rise of social media, it is natural to share these trips with others, since they are exciting, sometimes life-changing, experiences. It is common to see posts, think pieces, or videos including advice about how to find ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ experiences in many countries.

But what do people mean when they say “authentic”? Although everyone uses it a little bit differently, it seems to colloquially mean something most other tourists do not experience. Another facet of the usage appears to mean an experience or place that has not somehow lost its original purpose and now only exists for foreign tourists with limited to no interest from locals.  

People like ‘going off the beaten track,’ and not doing things deemed ‘too touristy’ despite the authenticity they may or may not have, like avoiding the Forbidden City in Beijing or not going to Arashiyama bamboo forest in Kyoto. It’s almost like an online competition of who can be the most unique traveler. The feeling of discovery, of being the only one to intimately know about an amazing place, is sought after. And, of course, trying to get pictures that other people might not have on their social media.

However, once they are joined by other adventure-seekers, that particular area seems to lose its attraction. The mere presence of tourists seems to water down the perceived authenticity of a place or experience. Even my own feelings about places change when there are a lot of other tourists.

This point of view seems to differ from locals’ in some cases though. Since popular tourist destinations are often famous for historical or cultural reasons, it makes sense for the local people to want visitors to learn more about—or have a lovely time in—their country. For example, VR Ninja Dojo is a new attraction in Japan only for foreigners: no Japanese people allowed. It is a VR game and opportunity to dress like a ninja. While many visitors may deem this ‘not authentic,’ the locals have apparently decided it is an interesting Japanese experience for foreigners.

In a similar way, Jogyesa temple lies in the middle of Seoul and attracts many visitors, foreign and local alike. When asked, Koreans have recommended Jogyesa to me as a wonderful place to go and learn about Korean culture. So, regardless of the number of foreigners, Koreans seem to feel it is still a place worthy of travelers’ attention. Furthermore, if locals continue going to a certain place, like a temple, to pray and give offerings or simply enjoy themselves, then despite the number of other tourists, this place or experience can also be “authentic” despite travelers’ personal feelings and desire to be unique.

In my view, the definition of authenticity in regards to traveling includes anything local people would do when tourists or outsiders are not present or metaphorically watching.

For instance, what they would casually eat at a restaurant that are in towns tourists may not even reach, what they do for holidays in private homes or traditions that predate expansive tourism, or what they do for fun on weekends. Some examples to explore this definition include:

Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, South Korea

Gyeongbok Palace can be classified, under this definition, as an authentic experience. In spite of other tourists, it remains a very popular spot for locals to wear hanbok, take photos, and meander the gardens. Not only is it historically important, it is currently active.


Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand

Famous for being a ‘backpacker street,’ most of the people present are foreign, besides the workers. Filled with visitors finding their way up and down the busy road, the restaurants, cafes, and souvenir stalls try to meet the expectations of an unusual, potentially wild, vacation. Vendors walking around with tasers available for testing and purchase trade places with those trying to sell scorpions as a snack. Eating scorpions and getting tased is most likely not a common Thai experience or habit. On a road famous for travelers, it may feel at home, but is not an authentic Thai activity.

Hanoi, Vietnam

During the Lunar New Year, the temples in Hanoi really come alive with people bustling around taking photos and praying. As a visitor, it is an amazing way to quietly observe how these places are sincerely used on a culturally important day in Vietnam. It is a chance to observe real Vietnamese traditions, and it is a chance that only comes once a year. So even though other travelers are definitely present (and also fascinated with the holiday festivities), visiting temples during the Lunar New Year holiday is very much an authentic experience to be lucky enough to have.

Danang, Vietnam

Taking a basket boat ride along the river begins as a peaceful, beautiful afternoon activity, but quickly takes a turn. Music blares from stereos, and older men spin the baskets wildly and vigorously toss their oars. The basket boat ride seems to exist purely for tourists’ benefit; while it may have roots in Vietnamese tradition, the experience provided for visitors is definitely just that—an experience for tourists.

As a destination with a large number of Korean tourists, this experience is curated specifically for the number of Korean tourists that come to Danang (as someone living in Korea I can attest to the popularity of Danang). When I tried this ride for myself, almost all fellow attendees were part of a Korean tour group and the music used by the performers was Psy’s Gangnam Style. Even our own driver would say that phrase to us, despite not knowing we were from Korea, and the dancers all knew the popular dance and song.

Should an authentic experience give visitors a better understanding of the place they are visiting (whether it be of their history, language, customs, food, thoughts, or art)? If so, Danang’s basket boat ride is a prime example of an inauthentic experience. It is not something locals do, and visitors likely leave without gaining any insight into Vietnamese culture, history, thoughts, or experiences. It begs the question: is an experience, food, or product inherently authentic because it is in the country? I personally disagree, using Khao San Road and Danang’s basket boats as examples.   

In my opinion, the death of authenticity occurs when locals begin creating or maintaining products or services not inherently present in the area solely to meet foreigners’ expectations.

People travel to be exposed to different ways of life, to see how differently humans can live from one another. It breaks stereotypes and changes minds. But when these places begin to create a façade of culture in order to please the masses, the authenticity is lost.

The tourists are not without responsibility in these situations either; they have the choice where and on what to spend their money and time. They also decide what to report back to family and friends, what stories to blog, what recommendations to make, and what photos to post. Certain places and things are popular and common for a reason: history, tradition, or uniqueness. So take that photo and join the thousands of others who have had this authentic experience.

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Fascinated by words and how human stories create our global narratives. All we really have are our stories, and they are consistently what keeps human culture alive. Currently teaching English in South Korea and, in my free time, traveling, writing, prepping for graduate school, and watching Parks and Recreation.

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The Death of Authenticity: Looking at ‘Authentic’ Travel Experiences

What makes a travel experience authentic?

Nowadays, people are traveling more than ever, and with the rise of social media, it is natural to share these trips with others, since they are exciting, sometimes life-changing, experiences. It is common to see posts, think pieces, or videos including advice about how to find ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ experiences in many countries.

But what do people mean when they say “authentic”? Although everyone uses it a little bit differently, it seems to colloquially mean something most other tourists do not experience. Another facet of the usage appears to mean an experience or place that has not somehow lost its original purpose and now only exists for foreign tourists with limited to no interest from locals.  

People like ‘going off the beaten track,’ and not doing things deemed ‘too touristy’ despite the authenticity they may or may not have, like avoiding the Forbidden City in Beijing or not going to Arashiyama bamboo forest in Kyoto. It’s almost like an online competition of who can be the most unique traveler. The feeling of discovery, of being the only one to intimately know about an amazing place, is sought after. And, of course, trying to get pictures that other people might not have on their social media.

However, once they are joined by other adventure-seekers, that particular area seems to lose its attraction. The mere presence of tourists seems to water down the perceived authenticity of a place or experience. Even my own feelings about places change when there are a lot of other tourists.

This point of view seems to differ from locals’ in some cases though. Since popular tourist destinations are often famous for historical or cultural reasons, it makes sense for the local people to want visitors to learn more about—or have a lovely time in—their country. For example, VR Ninja Dojo is a new attraction in Japan only for foreigners: no Japanese people allowed. It is a VR game and opportunity to dress like a ninja. While many visitors may deem this ‘not authentic,’ the locals have apparently decided it is an interesting Japanese experience for foreigners.

In a similar way, Jogyesa temple lies in the middle of Seoul and attracts many visitors, foreign and local alike. When asked, Koreans have recommended Jogyesa to me as a wonderful place to go and learn about Korean culture. So, regardless of the number of foreigners, Koreans seem to feel it is still a place worthy of travelers’ attention. Furthermore, if locals continue going to a certain place, like a temple, to pray and give offerings or simply enjoy themselves, then despite the number of other tourists, this place or experience can also be “authentic” despite travelers’ personal feelings and desire to be unique.

In my view, the definition of authenticity in regards to traveling includes anything local people would do when tourists or outsiders are not present or metaphorically watching.

For instance, what they would casually eat at a restaurant that are in towns tourists may not even reach, what they do for holidays in private homes or traditions that predate expansive tourism, or what they do for fun on weekends. Some examples to explore this definition include:

Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, South Korea

Gyeongbok Palace can be classified, under this definition, as an authentic experience. In spite of other tourists, it remains a very popular spot for locals to wear hanbok, take photos, and meander the gardens. Not only is it historically important, it is currently active.


Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand

Famous for being a ‘backpacker street,’ most of the people present are foreign, besides the workers. Filled with visitors finding their way up and down the busy road, the restaurants, cafes, and souvenir stalls try to meet the expectations of an unusual, potentially wild, vacation. Vendors walking around with tasers available for testing and purchase trade places with those trying to sell scorpions as a snack. Eating scorpions and getting tased is most likely not a common Thai experience or habit. On a road famous for travelers, it may feel at home, but is not an authentic Thai activity.

Hanoi, Vietnam

During the Lunar New Year, the temples in Hanoi really come alive with people bustling around taking photos and praying. As a visitor, it is an amazing way to quietly observe how these places are sincerely used on a culturally important day in Vietnam. It is a chance to observe real Vietnamese traditions, and it is a chance that only comes once a year. So even though other travelers are definitely present (and also fascinated with the holiday festivities), visiting temples during the Lunar New Year holiday is very much an authentic experience to be lucky enough to have.

Danang, Vietnam

Taking a basket boat ride along the river begins as a peaceful, beautiful afternoon activity, but quickly takes a turn. Music blares from stereos, and older men spin the baskets wildly and vigorously toss their oars. The basket boat ride seems to exist purely for tourists’ benefit; while it may have roots in Vietnamese tradition, the experience provided for visitors is definitely just that—an experience for tourists.

As a destination with a large number of Korean tourists, this experience is curated specifically for the number of Korean tourists that come to Danang (as someone living in Korea I can attest to the popularity of Danang). When I tried this ride for myself, almost all fellow attendees were part of a Korean tour group and the music used by the performers was Psy’s Gangnam Style. Even our own driver would say that phrase to us, despite not knowing we were from Korea, and the dancers all knew the popular dance and song.

Should an authentic experience give visitors a better understanding of the place they are visiting (whether it be of their history, language, customs, food, thoughts, or art)? If so, Danang’s basket boat ride is a prime example of an inauthentic experience. It is not something locals do, and visitors likely leave without gaining any insight into Vietnamese culture, history, thoughts, or experiences. It begs the question: is an experience, food, or product inherently authentic because it is in the country? I personally disagree, using Khao San Road and Danang’s basket boats as examples.   

In my opinion, the death of authenticity occurs when locals begin creating or maintaining products or services not inherently present in the area solely to meet foreigners’ expectations.

People travel to be exposed to different ways of life, to see how differently humans can live from one another. It breaks stereotypes and changes minds. But when these places begin to create a façade of culture in order to please the masses, the authenticity is lost.

The tourists are not without responsibility in these situations either; they have the choice where and on what to spend their money and time. They also decide what to report back to family and friends, what stories to blog, what recommendations to make, and what photos to post. Certain places and things are popular and common for a reason: history, tradition, or uniqueness. So take that photo and join the thousands of others who have had this authentic experience.

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