Authent-in-one-city?

How can one have an authentic experience with a certain culture? Is one required to travel to the place of origin of the culture being sought out? Coleman and Crang describe in Grounded Tourists, Travelling Theory a previous approach which posits a world of bounded cultures- national, ethnic or regional- all modeled as coherent and closed systems of meaning. But is culture truly place-specific? Is it bound to one nation, community, or ethnicity? Though there are ways of transmitting culture such as intangible heritage, which is also known as living culture because it is spread through oral traditions, performing arts, or social practices and rituals, tourists still seek out authenticity of cultures in places. It is true that the tourist may want to experience the living culture, but the trend in belief is that one must travel to the cultural birthplace to experience such things. Therefore, tourism supports the notion that authentic culture is place-bound.

Tourists desire to see the “real” thing. Take the Eiffel tower for instance. People flock from all over the world to see the “real” Eiffel tower in Paris when there are replicas in places much closer or cheaper such as Las Vegas. Another example of a grander scale would be traveling to Italy. Many Americans book vacations to Italy in order to have authentic or as some say real Italian food. However, there is a little Italy right in the United States. People could save thousands of dollars and hours of time by even going to their local Olive Garden to get their Italian fix. However, these are not deemed as authentic places. As quoted in the Guardian (Gray 1997), Charlie Gillett said, “Popular music is actually anti-authentic . . . Anything that develops or changes has to be anti-authentic. How could it be otherwise?” Though the previous examples weren’t music related, this quote speaks to the meaning of authenticity. Gillett believed that anything changed from the original is not authentic. Many tourists believe the same. By changing to location of the original, it has tainted the authenticity.

The stunning Wieliczka Salt Mines - sculptures and secrets beneath the earth in Poland.

One form of tourism that speaks to the idea of authenticity is industrial heritage tourism. This tourism is in response to tourists’ desire to experience the everyday life of people in a specific culture. It makes sense that everyday life is perceived as real or unrehearsed. Think about it, are you performing for someone when you are brushing your teeth in the morning, or lacing up your shoes before you go out the door. For the most part no, but it is the simple things throughout daily routines that can show some core cultural differences that people long to discover. In the textbook Issues in Cultural Tourism Studies, the author Melanie K. Smith points out a case study of industrial tourism in Wieliczka salt mines. People have been taken underground to tour these mines as early as the 15th century. Tourists are able to walk through the same mines that the miners once worked in day in and day out. The setting is real. People did not erect a new building and decorate it to make an artificial mine. The mine is real. The workers were real. The place is real.

Wieliczka Salt Mine in Photos
There is a hole in the theory of the authenticity of industrial tourism however. The idea of a worksite is authentic. Workers lived their lives there with no outside eyes to influence their actions. The author of The Tourist, MacCannel, brings to light the staging of authenticity. He explains Goffman’s front and back regions. The front is shown to the outsiders and the back, like a backstage, where the work is actually done. In industrial tourism, many believe that they are being shown the back region where everything is raw and for an audience, real. MacCannel warns that the back region may be transformed to a front region staged as a back region for the audience, also known as tourists. Even if this may be true, people still travel to these specific spots to get a little closer to the reality of a culture.

In various cases, tourists are searching for authenticity. People want to see the back regions of cultures, experience the same daily lives of historical characters, and be in the place where everything began. We are curious beings searching for what’s real.

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