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 changed dramatically.

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 physics.

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 visitors.

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 destination.

"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 inauthenticity.

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 scene.


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