Authenticity in Travel

Dear Friends,

St.-Cirq-Lapopie: The Ideal or Authentic French Village?

St.-Cirq-Lapopie: The Ideal or Authentic French Village?

On a recent trip to the southwest of France exploring the culinary delights of foie gras, truffles, duck and walnuts, a question kept occurring to me: what can be described as “authentic”?  Is a truffle farm authentic because its owners hunt for its precious fungi in a traditional way passed on for generations and does it lose that authenticity if science and technology allow a more efficient cultivation for commercial ends?  Is a walnut oil mill’s authenticity in question if the owners establish a restaurant to accommodate visitors curious about the mill’s production process and anxious to sample some dishes the walnut flavors so delicately?

In Merrion Webster’s, the definition of authentic is genuine, bona fide. In other words, what is described as authentic is actually and exactly what it claims to be. The designation of “authentic” implies the subject is fully trustworthy and presents itself truthfully.  Authenticity means the actual character of something is not counterfeited, imitated, or adulterated in any way.

So when one imagines an authentic farm, is one that belongs to the 21st century with all its technological advantages less authentic than one that has lingered in the 20th century?  Both are representing themselves truthfully, and are not counterfeits of the farm concept. With a successful restaurant added to its services, has our romantic image of a walnut oil mill been tainted, leaving us doubting its authenticity?  By definition, only if the farm or mill pretend to be something they are not do they lack authenticity.

I believe that, as we travel, we yearn for the nostalgia of yesteryear and the romance of simpler times.  When we encounter a magical place that meets these romantic expectations, we are thrilled and feel we have come in contact with authentic culture.  And sometimes we have. Yet, it is when the image in our mind’s eye is challenged by modern reality that we truly learn about the world, about its diversity of culture, about what the future may hold. 

 I welcome a dialogue on this subject, as ATA’s commitment to cultural, educational travel is tied to our ability to seek out and explore authentic experiences—whether they conform to travelers’ established preconceptions or not.  We want to share the world as it is, not as we expect it or imagine it to be.

 Kate Simpson

4 Responses to “Authenticity in Travel”
  1. Sandra Adams says:

    Kate, it seems to me that everything you saw in your travels in France (lucky you!)was indeed, authentic, at least authentic for these times. Since we cannot go back and experience what used to be (minus modern technological changes), we can enjoy what we have left to enjoy, all the while feeling nostalgic and romantic. At the same time I feel we must put thoughts of what may be in the future on the backburner, so to speak, since we don’t know, and do not need to know, what is to come. These are just some thoughts. I came upon this website while surfing the net. How interesting! Thank you.

  2. Dear Sandra,

    Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your taking the time to read my blog. You are right, as we travel, we may be witnessing places or lifestyles that are not long for this world. Particularly at this time of economic distress! So we do need to see things for what they are and appreciate them while they last.

  3. Kate,

    I would use the phrase “real world” instead of authentic. When you holiday in a country for a short-time, say a week or so, you are not seeing the “real world” aspects of the country–the people, the jobs, the neighborhoods, the grocery store, the hardware store, etc. You see hotels, tour buses, museums, etc. So, in my opinion to see the authentic country you must actually live and work there, even for a short time. You must live in a home or apartment in a local neighborhood, live there long enough to learn about the local food shops, stores, barber shops. You must meet the locals, make friends, learn about their likes/dislikes, fears and doubts. That is authentic.

    I have a blog,, which talks about these kinds of short-term working vacations which are readily available to professionals with marketable skills, say professors, doctors, engineers, business people, artists, etc. I heartily recommend this kind of working travel. And, best of all, you have your job and paycheck waiting for you when you return.

    Michael Schneider

    • Dear Michael,

      Thanks for your comment. Of course, I agree that living, studying and/or working in a foreign environment is the best way to experience a culture in its truest form. I was using the word “authentic” here to describe the venues and sites visited in-country; not to describe the actual travel experience. Some lives don’t lend themselves to being transplanted abroad, so shorter-term travel is one way for people to expand their horizons and learn about their world. And within this context, my company’s goal is to provide travelers insights into a particular culture’s authentic nature, not as it was a century ago, but as it is today, incorporating its past within the interpretation of its present. I wish you the very best on your travels!

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