Thursday, July 06, 2006

European Travelogue, Part 1: "Authenticity" in the Tourist Experience

Over the years, much ink has been spilled on the topic of the "authenticity" of culture, artifacts, experiences and tourism. This has particular resonance in the field of public history, particularly where historical reconstructions are concerned. As Alan Gordon at the University of Guelph has observed, there is a delicate balance that has to be struck between the expectations of visitors and faithfulness to history if a site (such as the reconstruction of Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons in Ontario) will be perceived of as "authentic" by visitors. This could be something as simple as the degree of cleanliness of the site.

I found myself reflecting on this as I travelled around Italy over the past two weeks, and found myself implicitly judging how "authentic", as opposed to "touristy", different cities were. For example, walking around a city early on a Monday morning, while people were heading off to work and bustling about, felt like an "authentic" experience, while listening to a cover band play Simon & Garfunkel tunes to the tourists in front of the Uffizi gallery in Florence decidedly did not. Wandering the back canals of the Cannaregio district of Venice felt like an "authentic" experience of the city - feeding pigeons with the thousands of tourists in Piazza San Marco didn't. Bologna, which gives the impression of a working city with few tourists, felt more "authentically" Italian than tourist-ridden Florence.

This is hardly a new observation on my part, but it did drive home in a very personal way the challenges faced by tourism promoters. Once a certain degree of success is reached in terms of attracting tourists, cities seem to lose a part of what made them special in the first place. I'm not sure how, or if, a healthy balance can be struck (although one can always travel in the off-season for a less frantic experience), but this commodification of the "essential" experience of a given place/community seems destined to lead to the loss of these same qualities.

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