Contextualizing Authenticity in Tourism: An Examination of Postmodern Tourism Theory

By: Arianna Drumond

Introduction

Tourism is, in many ways, an art form. With the advent of the leisure class in the mid-twentieth century, and increased mobility observed as a result of the processes of globalization, the tourism industry has leapt to meet the needs of a demanding public. Of the many tourism sub-categories, “authenticity aimed tourism” is among the most contentious. As affluent travelers become increasingly acquainted with cultures dissimilar to their own, the desire to see and experience something that is “authentic” and “genuine” has prompted the development of sites, museums, tours, and even hotels that simulate a foreign reality. While tourists crave a unique and true experience, it is critical to note that any recreation of an event or other scenario is of course a simulacrum, a mere representation where the original attributes of a people or place have been supplanted by false a simulation of themselves.

The Postmodern Tourist

In order to sufficiently explore authenticity and its many related terms, it is first necessary to examine the modern and postmodern tourist. When, in the 1970s tourism studies emerged as an academic field, many key researchers and theorists regarded it as a phenomenon resultant of modernism, and used modernist discourse to interpret visitor motivation. Two competing theories quickly dominated the field. In one camp, those who regarded tourism as nothing more than a superficial enterprise experienced by the moderately wealthy. The opposition argued a very different viewpoint. Dean MacCannell, a major influence in the field, viewed the experience as “a meaningful modern ritual which involves a quest for the authentic.”[i]

In recent decades, modernist theory has been replaced with postmodern thought. The postmodernity of tourism can be best observed in the many travel opportunities available; tourists can now experience “heritage tourism,” “ecotourism,” “adventure tourism,” “nostalgia-based tourism,” and any number of other specialty and focused travel packages. According to researcher Natan Uriely, the discourse surrounding postmodern tourism suggests two frameworks of thought. The first focuses on “simulational tourism,” the second on “other tourism.”[ii] Studies of “simulational tourism” focus largely on the “hyperreal,” and a traveler’s quest for simulated versions of reality. “Other tourism” deals principally with the idea that tourists are mainly seeking an opportunity to travel through the “natural” environment where they might encounter true authenticity.[iii] Though still polarized, postmodern tourism theories are united by an unwillingness to assume that all tourists are alike, now visitor motivation is considered to be multidimensional.

The Bedouin tours in Israel serve as an excellent example of a postmodern travel experience. Bedouin tours, which are offered by a number of agencies, work on the premise of ecotourism, cultural preservation, and authenticity. Through one agency, Kfar Hanokdim, travelers have the opportunity to sleep in a number of Bedouin inspired tents, cabins, or lodges. There are two “packages,” each offering donkey or camel tours and traditional meals. All visitors receive “Bedouin hospitality,” a package that includes a traditional greeting by a village host, a viewing of a coffee grinding ceremony, and lectures and stories of life in a Bedouin community. Kfar Hanokdim also offers Bar Mitzvahs and village rental for the hosting of private events.[iv]

A second company, Bedouin Experience, has chosen to emphasize the fragile relationship between the Bedouin culture and the Western world. They regard “…indigenous tourist venues as having important potential in strengthening the local Bedouin economy, as well as bringing people from different cultures to know and respect each other.”[v] Furthermore, they hope to educate visitors on the important role the desert plays in Bedouin culture, thereby promoting its preservation.

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All images courtesy of: Kfar Hanokdim

Bedouin tourism experiences perfectly align with postmodern tourism theory. Travelers are afforded the opportunity to experience a culture unique to their own. It is certainly an example of a simulated event and inline with the hyperreal as defined by “simulational tourism” theory. Visitors also have the opportunity to experience “other tourism” here as they are able to revel in the harsh desert environment of the Negev region of Israel. The desire of the traveler to be placed in such a harsh environment is especially ironic as they lack the skillsets necessary to survive here without the assistance of the Bedouin community that is hosting them and the travel agency that has arranged their tour.

Authenticity

Authenticity, when applied to tourism, is a fairly controversial term. Dean MacCannell first introduced the concept in his seminal text “The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class,” as a way of exploring tourist motivations and experiences.[vi] In recent years, MacCannell’s use of the word has been challenged. Researcher Ning Wang argues that the ambiguity of the expression stems from its over-application.[vii] Wang is particularly critical of MacCannell’s use of “experience authenticity” and “staged authenticity.”[viii] In regards to “staged tourism,” MacCannell states: “It is always possible that what is taken to be entry into a back region is really entry into a front region that has been totally set up in advance for touristic visitation.”[ix] A tourist’s experiences can never be authentic even if they perceive them to be. Wang counters this argument by observing that authenticity is often a term ascribed by the educated elite, outsiders—in many ways similar to tourists—looking in.[x] It would seem that Wang and MacCannell are essentially on opposite sides of the same coin. Authenticity is in fact subjective. To the tourist, a staged event may seem perfectly genuine, though to the organizers and performers, the event is indeed staged.

In his 1988 documentary “Cannibal Tours,” director Dennis O’Rourke accompanied a group of affluent Western European and American travelers up the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea as they embarked on a grand tour of the river and the many villages en route.[xi] Visitors frequently paused to photograph indigenous residents of each community. In order to provide the tourists with as “authentic” an experience as possible, villagers often posed and behaved in the ways expected of them by their Western observers. This was of course all done with the expectation that payment be made to the individuals being photographed. As a result, the indigenous population of Papua New Guinea became aware of themselves as “Other.” It is that very self-awareness that has resulted in the loss of the true and authentic “Other” and resulted in a mere facsimile. It is here that the simulacrum is especially evident. The original “Other” no longer exists; instead, a version that is all too aware of Western expectations has replaced it to the dissatisfaction of both the tourist and the “Other” themselves. This situation creates an unfortunate feedback-loop where the desire for the authentic begets the simulacrum resulting in a search for the authentic. In his discussion of “Cannibal Tours,” MacCannell describes a scenario where tourists in the American Southwest are greatly disappointed in the “modern” appearance of the Native Americans in the region:

“The commercialization of the touristic encounter extends to the point of commodification not merely of the handicrafts and the photographic image, but to the person of the exprimitive. Southwest American Indians complain that tourists have attempted to pat up their hair and arrange their clothing before photographing them, and that they receive unwanted offers from tourists to buy the jewelry or the clothing they are actually wearing..”[xii]

Here it is clear that perceived notions of authenticity are in great conflict with a modern reality. Visitors are much more interested in seeing their perceived understandings of a culture played out so that they may return home with photographs and souvenirs “authentic” to the “Other.”

Authenticity and Dark Tourism

Authenticity takes on a particularly unusual quality when dark tourism becomes a factor. According for the Institute for Dark Tourism research, dark tourism is:

“…An academic field of study is where death education and tourism studies collide and, as such, can shine critical light on the social reality of death. Dark tourism can also reveal tensions in cultural memory, interpretation and authenticity, and political and moral dilemmas in remembering our ‘heritage that hurts’”[xiii]

In this study of the authentic, dark tourism is significant in its relationship to postmodern tourism theory, the hyperreal, and simulacra. Researchers John Lennon and Malcolm Foley are credited with the first usage of the phrase in academic writing and also for linking it to postmodernism.[xiv] The authors argue that in order for a site to be considered truly “dark,” it must insight a reaction to modernity and therefore must relate to an event or catastrophe that has occurred within recent memory.[xv]

The recent development of tours through Chernobyl’s radioactive district and the neighboring town of Pripyat, Ukraine serve as an excellent example of dark tourism and can be examined through the postmodern lens.

On April 26, 1986 Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl power plant malfunctioned causing a plume of radiation equal in magnitude to 400 times that of the Hiroshima bombings during World War II, devastated Chernobyl and forced the evacuation of the nearly 50,000 residents of nearby Pripyat. In 2010, certain areas along the perimeter of the blast zone were deemed safe for tourism.[xvi] Visitors are instructed to attach disometers to their clothing in order to monitor radiation levels as they walk through the site. They are also warned not to:

“…touch any structures or vegetation, don’t sit on the ground or even put your camera                     tripod there, don’t take any item out of the zone, don’t eat outdoors. Guides make sure                   the visitors understand that various spots in the zone are more contaminated than                           others and insist no one wander off the designated paths.”[xvii]

Tourists are guided safely around the reactors and are then taken to Pripyat, the town built for the plant workers and their families. While there, visitors are invited to walk through, touch, and otherwise observe the shell of a once thriving community. Local schools, the never-used Ferris wheel in the town amusement park, and the Olympic sized swimming pool are among the most popular sites; each one a reminder of the people who were forced to flee their homes and possessions in haste.

chernobyl-plant4 r042s019 zone_0043_pripyat

Understanding visitor motivation when examining dark tourism sites is critical and the Chernobyl tours serve as an excellent case study. Again postmodern theory comes into play. Visitors seek out a “real” experience when touring Chernobyl, but their understanding of the explosion and its ramifications come only from their exposure to media surrounding the event. Foley and Lennon would argue that these tourists are not seeking any sort of intellectual enlightenment here, but simply wish to experience the spectacle.[xviii] Tourists are desperately attempting to use their perceived understanding to create form and derive sense from an event that is inherently chaotic. This is in fact a hallmark of dark tourism, and in many ways of postmodernism. Where death and chaos reign supreme, people attempt to categorize and systematize the events in order to reflect upon them and study them.

Reality Tourism and the Hyperreal

In his definitive text  “Simulacra and Simulation,” Jean Baudrillard discusses the concept of the hyperreal. Hyperreality is defined as a seamless blending of the real and unreal. The result is the inability to distinguish between the two.[xix] When considering the hyperreal in tourism studies, authenticity must again be considered. Umberto Eco builds on Baudrillard’s analysis. He argues that hyperreality is also defined by yearning for reality. It is this need to experience what is real, that often results in the simulation of reality. The simulacrum is consumed, but nothing is authentic.[xx]

South Africa’s Emoya Luxury Hotel and Spa offers tourists an opportunity to experience the shantytowns of Bloemfontein. Experience is referred to as “poverty tourism.” Travelers pay roughly $82 a night to sleep in a shake made of corrugated iron sheets. Visitors however, are not expected to live in the conditions of a South African shantytown. All of the rooms have heated floors, running water and wifi connections.[xxi] There is also a spa on the premises, and the opportunity to participate in gamedrives and walking trails were some forty species of Africa’s most exotic animals could be viewed within the confines of the company’s private game reserve. Emoya also offers a wedding package, and suggests that its shantytown is the perfect for team building activities.[xxii]

The Emoya Luxury Hotel and Spa is a perfect example of the hyperreal. Tourists, who a desire to experience the shantytowns of South Africa are given the opportunity to do so with as little inconvenience as possible. In fact, there is nothing at all authentic about the environment Emoya has created. Eco’s belief that the hyperreal extends from a desire to experience reality, but simply create a simulacrum is proven here.

The Prison Hotel in Liepaja, Latvia is an exceedingly puzzling example of postmodern tourism and the hyperreal. Here, visitors experience—in a manner that is very watered-down—the brutal treatment of prisoners by the KGB. The experience is considered to be a form of “reality tourism.” The Prison was originally used to house criminals who, as punishment, frequently experienced psychological torture at the hands of their KGB guards.

Upon their arrival, visitors are forced to squat with their hands behind their head while guards explain the hotel rules. Guests are then subjected to a medical exam, photographed and quizzed on Latvian history. Failure to satisfy the guards can result in solitary confinement. Everything is timed, guests are told when to sleep, when to use the restroom, and when to eat.[xxiii]

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All Images Courtesy of: Thiery Tinacci: “In a KGB Prisoner’s Skin.”

Liepaja’s Prison Hotel is a curious example of the hyperreal. As in South Africa’s shantytown experience, visitors cannot, under any circumstance truly experience what it is to be a prisoner in a KGB run prison in a rural town in Latvia. The quest for the authentic is one that cannot be fulfilled. However determined visitors are to experience a slice of life through the perspective of an “Other,” the simple fact is that, they too are “Other” and the two worlds can only collide to create a world that is derived from hyperreality.

Conclusion

As in the case with each of the tourism examples discussed, postmodern discourse aptly applies to the experience created both by the tourist, and those who create the experience for the visitor. In each case, both frameworks of postmodern tourism theory can be applied. Visitors clearly seek out “simulational tourism” experiences. There is an eagerness, and in some ways a desperation, to examine life through the lens of the “Other.” As in the case with dark tourism, the desire for this experience is based on a need to make sense of the chaos of death, a topic that is frequently removed from the discourse of the average Westerner. The quest for “Other tourism” is also apparent. As in the case with the Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa experience and the Bedouin village accommodation, visitors can experience a landscape unlike their own and admire and revel in the “Otherness” of the physical world. In the end of course, it is only the end, only a simulacrum can be achieved. The authentic remain out of reach.


[i]  Natan Uriely. “Theories of Modern and Postmodern Tourism,” Annals of Tourism Research 24(1997): 983.

[ii] Uriely, “Theories,” 983.

[iii] Uriely, “Theories,” 983.

[iv] Kfar Hanokdim, accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

[v]  Bedouin Experience, accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

[vi] Dean MacCannell. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (California: University of California Press, 1976).

[vii] Ning Wang, “Rethinking Authenticity in the Tourism Experience,” Annals of Tourism Research 26(1999) 350.

[viii] Wang, “Rethinking,” 353.

[ix] Wang, “Rethinking,” 353.

[x] Wang, “Rethinking,” 355.

[xi] Dean MacCannell, “Cannibal Tours,” Society for Visual Anthropology Review 6(1990) 14, DOI: 10.1525/var.1990.6.2.14

[xii] MacCannell, “Cannibal Tours,” 15.

[xiii] Institute for Dark Tourism Research.” Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

[xiv] Stephanie Yuill, “Dark Tourism: Understanding Visitor Motivation at Sites of Death and Disaster” (MA diss., Texas A&M University, 2003) 10.

[xv] Yuill, “Dark Tourism,” 18.

[xvi] Andrew Osborn, “Chernobyl’s ‘Illegal Tours Stop,” The Telegraph, Sept. 20, 2011, accessed December 14, 2013, Web.

[xvii]  Jim Heintz, “Chernobyl Tours Offered 25 Years After Blast,” NBCNews, April 11, 2011, accessed December 14, 2013, Web.

[xviii] Yuill, “Dark Tourism,” 10.

[xix] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1981).

[xx] Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, Trans. William Weaver (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 1986).

[xxi] Emoya Luxury Hotel and Spa http://www.emoya.co.za/.

[xxii] Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa, accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

[xxiii] Tim Bryan, “Handcuffs Are Included in the Room Rate, Sir,” The Guardian, June 26, 2006, accessed December 14, 2013,Web.

 

Bibliography

Books

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1981.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. Translated by William Weaver. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 1986.

MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. California: University of California Press, 1976.

Journals

Dean MacCannell, “Cannibal Tours,” Society for Visual Anthropology Review 6(1990): 14-24 Accessed December 14, 2013. DOI: 10.1525/var.1990.6.2.14.

Uriely, Natan. “Theories of Modern and Postmodern Tourism,” Annals of Tourism Research 24(1997): 982-985.

Wang,Ning. “Rethinking Authenticity in the Tourism Experience,” Annals of Tourism Research 26(1999): 349-370.

Dissertation

Yuill, Stephanie Marie. “Dark Tourism: Understanding Visitor Motivation at Sites of Death and Disaster.” MA diss., Texas A&M University, 2003.

Web Articles

Bryan, Tim. “Handcuffs Are Included in the Room Rate, Sir.” The Guardian, June 26, 2006. Accessed December 14, 2013,Web.

Jim Heintz. “Chernobyl Tours Offered 25 Years After Blast,” NBCNews, April 11, 2011, Accessed December 14, 2013, Web.

Osborn, Andrew. “Chernobyl’s ‘Illegal Tours Stop,” The Telegraph, Sept. 20, 2011. Accessed December 14, 2013, Web.

Websites

Bedouin Experience. “Bedouin Experience.” Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa. “Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa.” Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

Kfar Hanokdim. “Kfar Hanokdim”. Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

University of Central Lancashire. “Institute for Dark Tourism Research.” Accessed Nov. 4, 2013. Web.

Images

Black Owl. “The Abandoned City of Pripyat/Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.” Accessed December 14, 2013. Web

Kfar Hanokdim. “Gallery”. Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

Leave Me Here: Bones of Wanderlust, Web.

Thiery Tinacci. “In a KGB Prisoners Skin,” Web.

Witness This, Web.

Video

O’Rourke, Dennis. Cannibal Tours. Film, 1:08:07 (excerpt 1:43). 1988. Web.

Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa. “Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa.” Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.