George Morgan-Grenville, president
of Abercrombie & Kent, was relating a story his brother had
told him about being in a small port city when a cruise ship pulled
in and 3,000 passengers arrived on the scene.
The local portside
cafe was suddenly filled with cruisers, and the waiters were
rushing around, plopping down food and drinks with an attitude that
ranged from disinterest to contempt.
His point was that,
in minutes, an atmospheric scene typical of the destination had
The "before" scene
had cultural richness. The "after" was a bland tourist experience
devoid of anything even remotely genuine.
Authenticity may be
the most sought after -- and elusive -- of travel quests. In fact,
it may well be unobtainable, for a couple of reasons.
The first reason has
a parallel in the "uncertainty principle" in quantum
Dumbed down to a
level that even I can understand, the uncertainty principle asserts
that it's impossible to understand the true nature of certain
phenomena because the very act of observation alters the nature of
the thing being observed.
Because of the scale
of cruising and other mass tourism, it's easy to see how the
principle can apply to travel, particularly in small-scale
destinations that don't easily absorb a sudden inflow of
But there is a
variation on travel's uncertainty principle that also makes it
tough to deliver authenticity through any travel products:
Travelers don't necessarily like what's truly authentic.
A&K's clients pay
dearly to visit exotic destinations where luxury is not indigenous.
I asked Morgan-Grenville if he could satisfy the expectations of
his clients without introducing artificial experiences.
"I'm not sure
everyone wants to stay in a shack for the sake of authenticity," he
said. "You have to balance pampering with an individual
"But you can perk up
the experience and combine it with really interesting things to do
that are authentic. For instance, in Tikal [Guatemala], our advance
team saw the bedsheets in the hotel were getting worn. We arranged
for crisp, new sheets. That didn't change the hardware of the
hotel, which had local character.
"You can equate it to
food: Eating fish and chips wrapped in a newspaper, sitting on the
sea, that's a fine culinary experience. Or you can order fish and
chips at one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants and also have a fine
culinary experience, but different."
The reality (if we
can presume to make conclusions about reality with any certainty at
this point) is that, given the discomfort that's sometimes
associated with authenticity, it's difficult to build an attractive
travel product around it.
And, frankly, those
willing to put up with discomfort to get closer to authenticity
usually aren't attracted to packaged travel products in the first
place and, in the end, simply create a different level of
I backpacked around
Africa and Asia for 18 months, sleeping sometimes in people's
homes, in their barns and on the beach, but I was well aware that
locals viewed the backpacker subculture as just another version of
tourist (and a cheap one, at that).
In the end, all
travelers must ultimately come to grips with what I see as the
first law of travel's uncertainty principle: As soon as an outsider
arrives on the scene, the scene is no longer the same