Authenticity There’s an app for that

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Mass tourism is over. Today we crave the authentic. We want to breath the same air as the locals, drink from the same tap - so long as its craft beer - and capture the true, unsullied atmosphere of a place. Or so we are told, by various futurists, travel gurus, opinion shapers, and policy makers.

That was certainly the vibe at the Tomorrow’s Urban Traveller Conference, in Copenhagen, last week, which made frequent reference to the city’s new localhood strategy – a plan to create a more sustainable kind of tourism, where visitors and locals rub along in a more mutually beneficial way.

It’s a laudable aim. But what do we mean by authentic? Can tourism be authentic? And whatever authenticity is, doesn’t it get lost as soon as a layer of marketing or commerce is introduced to the mix? These are tricky questions to answer, but when it comes to authenticity we could do worse than to trust our instincts: If something doesn’t feel real that’s because it very probably isn’t.

Call me old-fashioned, but I would resist calling something ‘authentic’ that had been packaged up and presented to me by a property rental company or hotel booking site – especially if an app was involved. And yet several speakers in Copenhagen sought to pursued us that the route to a more ‘real’ experience was through our smartphones or via some online business transaction.

It was curious to listen to a marketing executive from Airbnb talking about how the company was all about connecting people, for example, and how the Airbnb ‘community’ - an interesting choice of words - was helping tourists to ‘live like locals’. I wouldn’t deny there is some truth in this – staying in a homely apartment is closer to a ‘real’ experience than staying in a five-star hotel, but you’re not being asked to clean the litter tray or go to the office on behalf of your host – you’re still on holiday. And, to state the obvious, the more holiday homes there are the less local somewhere becomes.

Then there was the guy from who has been working with Spotify on a mobile app which gives users their own ‘travel soundtrack’, introducing them to artists from a specific  destination (you get the choose the type of music you like). Said artist suggests places to eat, cool places to hangout, that sort of thing. It comes with a handy map, too, so you can find the best live music venues. Fun, I suppose, and perfectly harmless - but is it more ‘authentic’ an experience than riding on an open-top bus listening to a recorded guide through a pair of earphones? Dunno.

I suspect authentic is too nebulous a word to describe what’s happening here.

If travellers are hankering after anything, it’s a sense of being treated like an individual – in other words, not part of the mass in 'mass tourism'. They are rejecting the box-ticking exercise that tourism appears to have become. But I think Wonderful Copenhagen is right to point out that this desire can only be realised by achieving a mutuality with those people who live and work in  cities.

Is this a fanciful aim? No, I don't think so. Because, just as it benefits tourists to see a place through the eyes of a local, there are no doubt locals who would benefit from seeing their home city afresh through the eyes of a tourist. We are all people at the end of the day. Of course, it would be handy if there were an app or website to shortcut this for us – to achieve a magical harmony between resident and visitor - but I think it’s going to require a bit more thinking and a bit more effort on all our parts.

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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