Aiming for the authentic
THOSE who travel positively in search of something wall certainly wish to feel that what they come across is authentic. But unless they are going to immerse themselves completely in the new culture they are unlikely to see anything more than a ‘front’ - when what they really want to do is peek round the back.
The front is the face we show to the rest of the world: the sophisticated restaurant rather than the grimy kitchen: the smooth shop rather than the noisy factory. But it is not always easy to distinguish between front and back and the intrepid tourist will need to be on the alert. Watch out for the following situations.
The full front The thing to avoid: the airport souvenir shop, the guided bus tour.
The decorated front The luxury hotel, say, where the waiters dress in peasant costume. The decor may well have local handicrafts tastefully incorporated.
The front organised like the back A more ambiguous situation. This might be the business selling ethnic pottery where the goods are being made in front of the customers eyes.
The back cleaned up to serve as a front. This could be an authentic African village which regularly receives tourist buses. Any more unpleasant sights have probably been tucked out of the way.
The genuine back: an ordinary village, a real folk musician.
But even if you do eventually find the real thing it could be that this does not create as strong an impression as a fake. You could show up at a real African village to find everyone away working in the fields. It might have been better to have had a friendly guide waiting to bring on the dancers and sell you a few beads - this could have taught you more about what African village life is like.
The central problem for the casual tourist is that he or she has no role to play in the place they visit, other than that of a tourist. The chances are that they will not penetrate the surface.
You might take comfort from the fact that in many places the tourists themselves are a significant part of the local landscape. So if you are really in search of the authentic maybe the best thing to do is to enjoy the authentic experience of being a genuine tourist.
The division into this series of fronts and back was introduced by US sociologist Dean MacCannell.