by Ares Kalandides*
Destination marketing is obsessed with place authenticity and for good reasons. Tourists, it is said, want to experience the ‘real thing’. What is that real thing? What are authentic places? We know that some places feel more ‘real’ than others, but what does that feeling mean? Is place authenticity the same as the ‘sense of place’?
Imagine the following situation: You are walking in the mountains, maybe wandering through a beautiful forest with no one around. You enjoy the sounds of the forest animals, the smell of the damp earth. The light through the trees makes you dreamy. You enjoy the solitude, that feeling that you are into some kind of discovery of nature and of yourself.
“There are things that give us the feeling that places are authentic, but when examined closely they are somehow flawed.”
Behind the trees you discover a small well-designed kiosk. As you approach a very friendly person greets you: “Would you like some information about the other sights in the area?” Suddenly you are not in the discovery of nature any longer. That very friendly greeting makes you feel that you had been duped. What you thought was an untouched forest was in fact part of the packaged local sights.
Now this: You are in Paris. You have just managed to escape the main tourist routes and you’re in some neighbourhood that seems cute and unpretentious. You enter a ‘Parisian café’, where ‘real’ Parisians go. There’s French music in the air (French 1950s chansons of course, something about the banks of the Seine) and the place feels faithfully Parisian. The door opens and a well-dressed Japanese couple comes in, looking around doubtfully. They go up to the waiter and show him a page in their guidebook, making shy gestures. “Oui”, says the waiter. “This is the place”. “The place”, you find out later, is where the café scenes in the 2001 film “Amélie” were shot. It doesn’t get more Parisian than Amélie Poulain, does it? You can almost hear accordions playing a java in the background.
“The “Old Shoppe” is the final guarantee that there is nothing old about it.”
In both cases somebody came and burst your dream bubble. What you thought was an authentic experience abruptly turned fake. But did it really? There are several things that give us the feeling that places are authentic, but when examined closely all of them are somehow flawed.
‘Authentic places’ are often places of a pre-industrial past: quaint villages, the idyll of rural life, sheep or cows grazing peacefully or the old peasant on a donkey. Yet, more often than not, even such places are packaged and sold by the tourism industry. The English Cotswolds risk turning into a caricature of themselves through the inflation of reproduced images. The Greek Island of Santorin has turned into the prototype of postcard beauty (where some of the monstrosities of the built environment are meticulously left out of the perfect picture). The “Old Shoppe” is the final guarantee that there is nothing old about it.
Another way we experience authenticity is by comparing reality to the images in our head. So the Cotswolds or Santorin may feel very real to us because this is the image we have of Englishness or of the Greek island. Such images may be the product of some long history (though sometimes they’re not), but more often than not they are also reproduced by the tourism industry. We then fall into the trap of confusing the essence of place with its mediated image.
“We experience as authentic those places that correspond to the most inauthentic image of all – the one created by the industry.”
However the more we delve into the ‘essence’ of place, the more we realize that it’s impossible to separate between what a place is and what how it’s imagined. As I have argued before, (see my short article on Naples here and about Place Identity here), places exist as real entities out there and also as imaginary places in our minds. This does not mean that there is no specificity of place, but that it’s almost impossible to nail it down outside our lived experiences. If we examine the images in our minds, we will find that media and the tourist industry (over decades) have played a very important role in their formation, although we may not even realize it. The paradox then is that we experience as authentic those places that correspond to the most inauthentic image of all – the one created by the industry.
I would argue that the difference (though not always very clear) is between ‘lived places’ and ‘consumed places’. The routines of our everyday life create our own sense of authenticity. The place becomes real, because it’s your place, because you co-create it by your own practices. As a consumer (i.e. tourist), you re-create the place; you take in existing images and re-live them. I’m not saying that consuming places is not also a way of making them, but it’s less creative – it re-produces more than it produces.
“Maybe in the end the concept of ‘authentic places’ makes little sense in tourism.”
Maybe in the end the concept of ‘authentic places’ makes little sense in tourism. It doesn’t have to be Disneyland to be fake. In every place communicated to tourists somebody picks out certain elements (calls them place DNA, place identity or something similarly questionable) packages and sells them. The authentic experience cannot come from consuming places, but rather from living them together with the people who co-produce them through everyday practices.
*Ares Kalandides is Director of the Institute of Place Management