You say you want authentic?

A detached guestroom at Saddle Mountain Ranch.

A detached guestroom at Saddle Mountain Ranch.

Authentic, experiential, immersive, transformational. The rise of these marketing buzzwords in travel over the past 20 years would suggest Americans increasingly want to connect with host communities and cultures in a meaningful way and to make that leap from tourist to traveler.

But how far are they really willing to go? How authentic is too authentic?

The option to embed oneself in a destination has become the promise of players from Airbnb to legacy tour operators, cruise lines and resorts. In the first generation of experiential offerings, resorts would have guests accompany their chefs to markets to buy locally sourced ingredients. Today, among the options that get deeper into the local food chain, the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan offers guests a chance to spend a morning working in a rice paddy.

While many travelers signing up for these programs seem content to dip a toe or a taste bud into the local scene, a growing number are ready to dive head-first into a destination whose versions of authenticity are less curated. A few developing countries, noticing that their arrival numbers are rising, are putting serious efforts into exploiting this emerging trend. 

Earlier this year, I visited two such countries, Guyana and the Solomon Islands, each promising unique experiences without crowds as well as a level of authenticity best described as “inescapable.”

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Guyana: Unknown South America

Sunrise at Saddle Mountain Ranch. Guests hoping to see a giant anteater must get going before dawn.

Sunrise at Saddle Mountain Ranch. Guests hoping to see a giant anteater must get going before dawn.

Over the past decade, South America has come into its own. Peru’s arrivals rose about 70% over the past 10 years, from 2.6 million in 2008 to 4.4 million in 2018. In the same time frame, Ecuador visitation grew from 990,000 to 2.4 million; Colombia soared from 1.1 million to 4.2 million.

Guyana welcomed 282,000 visitors in 2018, up from 135,000 a decade earlier, reflecting a significant percentage growth, though from a relatively low base. And Guyana’s numbers include return visits from its sizeable diaspora in North America as well as travel related to the discovery of offshore oil reserves in 2015.

The oil, estimated to be worth $40 billion as raw crude, could be a game changer in a country whose population is less than a million. As funds to improve infrastructure come within reach, the government appears to be getting serious about its tourism development. Last year, it hired Brian Mullis, a former U.S. tour operator, academic and founder of the consultancy Sustainable Travel International, to be its tourism director.

Mullis said that until now, tourism had employed a supply-driven approach, developing around a few obvious attractions, such as Kaieteur Falls. It paid scant attention to behavioral changes in consumer demand, particularly the upswing in experiential travel options. This shift, Mullis believes, presents an opportunity.

“The country has a tremendous endowment in its bio- and cultural diversity,” he said. “Where else can you go that’s this close [to North America], find incredible natural attractions and may not see other tourists? Where more than 80% of the forest is still there, by design? Where you can interact with indigenous people and not need a translator?”

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First stop: Georgetown

Georgetown, the capital, can provide a relatively comfortable transition for most visitors. It offers some beautiful, restored colonial architecture; its botanical garden has an impressive variety of bird life; and within the city limits, a national park plays host to manatees in its pond.

Global hospitality and tourism brands have taken root in Georgetown. American Airlines began flying there in December and JetBlue will begin service in April 2020. Enterprise and Hertz are present. There are no luxury properties in the capital — most are budget to midmarket — but Marriott offers a four-star property, and the Hotel Ramada by Wyndham Princess even has a casino.

I stayed in or toured four local properties: the boutique King’s Hotel; the colonial-style Roraima Duke and Cara hotels; and the Pegasus, which for many years after opening in 1969 was considered the place to stay. While all the home-grown properties are reasonable choices for experienced travelers, those demanding only the familiar might want to stick with Marriott or Ramada — and then, after they’ve toured the capital, return whence they came. If familiarity is a requirement, they’re likely a poor match for the interior of the country.

The no-frills accommodations at Caiman House.

The no-frills accommodations at Caiman House.

It’s not that there aren’t reasonable, even good accommodations farther inland, but in exchange for seeing the very best the country has to offer, one must have some tolerance for different, including no-star accommodations with the distinct possibility of insect life en suite.

The sun can be strong (the southern border is one degree north of the equator), the food unfamiliar and the bar for sanitation lower than at home, but in aggregate, there’s nothing sunscreen, repellent, Purell, an open mind and a sense of adventure can’t overcome.

There may be some advantages in Guyana’s late entry into international promotion. In the void left by the absence of global brands, individuals, families and even villages have developed tourism products, aligning with the desire among some travelers to support locally owned and operated social enterprises.

My favorite meal in Georgetown was served in the Backyard Cafe, which was, literally, in trained chef Delven Adams’ backyard in a residential neighborhood. No signage out front; he depends on Facebook and word-of-mouth to draw customers. His mother works the stove in the kitchen while he tends to a wood-burning stove in the back.

Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, has a several attractions right in town. Above, a resident manatee in a manmade pond in Guyana National Park in Georgetown surfaces to look around, in hopes a passerby will throw in some grass.

Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, has a several attractions right in town. Above, a resident manatee in a manmade pond in Guyana National Park in Georgetown surfaces to look around, in hopes a passerby will throw in some grass.

Guyana naturalist Leon Moore helps a visitor line up her phone camera to his telescope to photograph a crimson crested woodpecker at Georgetown’s Botanical Gardens.

Guyana naturalist Leon Moore helps a visitor line up her phone camera to his telescope to photograph a crimson crested woodpecker at Georgetown’s Botanical Gardens.

Georgetown City Hall. Many of the colonial structures in Guyana’s capital have been restored, but a political dispute about who would control funding for repairs has stalled efforts to fix this classic structure.

Georgetown City Hall. Many of the colonial structures in Guyana’s capital have been restored, but a political dispute about who would control funding for repairs has stalled efforts to fix this classic structure.

Tropical fruit is abundant at the stalls in Bourda market.

A traditional pharmacy at the market includes “Belly Clean Out,” “Wind Medicine” and the intriguing “Take a Bath.”

Ingredients for a Chef Devon Adams’ Backyard Cafe lunch.

And there’s a backyard bar to pass the time while you’re waiting for food.

Tropical fruit is abundant at the stalls in Bourda market.

A traditional pharmacy at the market includes “Belly Clean Out,” “Wind Medicine” and the intriguing “Take a Bath.”

Ingredients for a Chef Devon Adams’ Backyard Cafe lunch.

And there’s a backyard bar to pass the time while you’re waiting for food.

Flying south from Georgetown, the country’s interior looks like an enormous forest of broccoli, so tight is the canopy. The small plane I was in landed in a transition zone, where patches of brown grass could be seen between the trees but before the savannah to the south and west begins.

The destination was Caiman House, a lodge operated by Macushi tribespeople on the edge of Yupukari village. It plays an important role in two long-term experiments, one social and one scientific.

In the first, it provides income and employment and, most importantly, promises continuity of traditional village life to a community whose children might otherwise leave to work in gold mines. It’s run very much on residents’ terms: They agreed communally to limit the number of visitors (300 to 400 a year in the seven-room, 14-bed property) and to restrict contact between villagers and visitors to specifically scheduled village tours. Guests are not permitted to wander around the village at will.

Its second role is to provide ongoing research about the caiman population in the nearby Rupununi River.

Researcher Peter Teller arrived in 2002, wanting to study black caimans. The lodge’s manager, Delene Lawrence, said, “To be accepted by an Amerindian community is very hard. We gave him permission to stay to teach us new things.”

Teller left long ago, but the research continues, and guests are invited to join on night caiman hunts, riding in open motor boats as tribesmen attempt to slip a wire snare affixed at the end of a pole around the giant reptiles’ necks. Once caught, the snare makes the caimans docile, allowing the villagers to pull them out of the water, duct tape their mouths closed and take measurements that, in aggregate, reflect the caiman’s health.

Under a full moon, I rode with Anthony Roberts, a tribesman who currently heads the project locally. We saw many pairs of eyes reflecting back from along the banks, but approaching and slipping a wire noose over an alert, seven foot-plus caiman is not easy.

Ninety minutes in, on perhaps the fifth attempt, he and his crew succeeded and brought a caiman onto a river bank. At a length of more than nine feet, it seemed a monster to me, but it was stressed and underweight: Its tail was disproportionately thin, and it weighed only 143 pounds. 

“On a scale from 1 to 5, it’s a 1,” Roberts said.

The only moment in the operation when the Macushi seemed nervous was when the caiman was set free. The tribesmen faced it toward the river; typically, the animals head straight in as soon as the noose is removed, but every once in a while, they get disoriented and turn toward their captors, in which case, well, be prepared to run.

A nine-foot black caiman, caught by members of the Macushi tribe who work on a research project on the animals.

A nine-foot black caiman, caught by members of the Macushi tribe who work on a research project on the animals.

Having caught a caiman with a wire snare at the end of a pole, a researcher keeps its head above water as he heads for a river bank to examine the animal.

Having caught a caiman with a wire snare at the end of a pole, a researcher keeps its head above water as he heads for a river bank to examine the animal.

The village library, funded by proceeds from the nonprofit Caiman House, is attached to the front of the lodge.

The village library, funded by proceeds from the nonprofit Caiman House, is attached to the front of the lodge.

A fishmonger in Bourda market shows off the catch of the day.

A fishmonger in Bourda market shows off the catch of the day.

Land of giant river otters

Everyone making a trip upriver on the Rupununi from Yupukari to Karanambu will, within a few hours, see dozens of species of colorful birds, caimans sunning and, if keeping a sharp watch, giant river otters.

These amphibious mammals, found only in Guyana, are both larger and less extroverted than other otters but arguably no less cute. And they are partly responsible for the birth of the country’s ecotourism movement.

The Karanambu region has been heavily influenced by the McTurks, a family of settlers who tapped latex and amassed 125 square miles of land. When second-generation Diane McTurk took over, she established Karanambu Lodge, a tourism enterprise with a purpose: to preserve the ecology of the region. In the process, she began taking in stray otter pups that otherwise would be killed by strongly territorial otter families.

Her daughter-in-law, Melanie, picked up where Diane left off, further developing the ecolodge and continuing to adopt abandoned otters. The lodge caters mostly to British and European visitors — birders, primarily — who became aware of Karanambu when naturalist David Attenborough visited the site.

With the encouragement of, and some training from, Melanie McTurk, a few other locally run ecolodges have appeared. 

“We not doing this for profit,” McTurk said. “It keeps the young people in their villages. I’d love to see a dozen lodges, quality products, across the region.”

In addition to taking nature walks, guests can follow, at a distance, when McTurk and staff bring whatever otters might be in residence down to the river. (I saw 6-month-olds Sandy and Duane.) If watching them play in the water doesn’t charm you, check to make sure you still have a pulse.

A six-month old giant river otter being cared for at Karanambu Lodge takes an exercise break in the Rupanuni River.

A six-month old giant river otter being cared for at Karanambu Lodge takes an exercise break in the Rupanuni River.

The world’s largest lily pads can be found in ponds near the Rupanuni basin.

The world’s largest lily pads can be found in ponds near the Rupanuni basin.

Great egrets – and two storks – rest in a tree on a like near Karanambu Lodge.

Great egrets – and two storks – rest in a tree on a like near Karanambu Lodge.

Saddle Mountain Ranch owner Tommy Kenyon hates tourists but loves visitors.

Saddle Mountain Ranch owner Tommy Kenyon hates tourists but loves visitors.

Anteaters and cattle

My final stop in Guyana was Saddle Mountain Ranch, a working cattle operation, fully in the savannah just a few miles east of the Brazil border.  

Within minutes of my arrival, ranch owner Tommy Kenyon, told me, “I hate tourists.” (Actually, there was an expletive just before “tourists.”)

He hates tourists, he repeated, but loves visitors. His wife, Joan, convinced him to add bunk rooms for paying guests. Son Judah leads trail rides, and Joan cooks.

This is also the land of the giant anteater, somewhat elusive because it’s solitary and primarily nocturnal. Those willing to get up early might spot one within an hour or so of dawn.

Along with me for the entire trip was Leon Moore, an extraordinary Guyanan naturalist. He had never been to this part of the savannah, but from a hilltop at sunrise he spotted an anteater a mile away, then hopped on an ATV and led us right to it.

The animals have a keen sense of smell but poor eyesight, so as it approached us from upwind, we were able to get a good look at him. As soon as he passed us, he caught our scent, picked up the pace and scurried away.

The morning on the day I left, Kenyon invited guests to come down and watch as he branded cattle. This was a first for some of the guests, and they didn’t stay long.

Kenyon watched them go. “It’s [expletive] brutal,” he said. “I [expletive] love it.”

Horses returning to the corral at Saddle Mountain Ranch.

Horses returning to the corral at Saddle Mountain Ranch.

Joan Kenyon, right, helps prepare dinner for guests.

Joan Kenyon, right, helps prepare dinner for guests.

A lasso slips around a calf as the ranch hands prepare for branding.

A lasso slips around a calf as the ranch hands prepare for branding.

The Solomon Islands

The blue waters of Western Province in the Solomon Islands, between Kennedy and Skull islands.

The blue waters of Western Province in the Solomon Islands, between Kennedy and Skull islands.

On the other side of the globe, five degrees south of the equator in the westernmost reaches of the Indian Ocean, another former British colony, the Solomon Islands, is also mapping out a tourism strategy.

As in Guyana, English is widely spoken, and like Guyana, the government has tapped an experienced, foreign travel professional to formulate a plan to grow leisure arrivals.

“The destination is a collection of niche markets,” said Fiji-born Josefa Tuamoto, CEO of Tourism Solomons. “Niches and sub-niches. Reef diving. Wreck diving, Sailing. Surfing. Fishing. Birdwatching. Trekking. Battlefields. Culture.”

He believes he has no shortage of attractions to market. His challenge, he feels, is to raise standards. To that end, earlier this year the government rolled out a program that would certify hotels that met minimum requirements.

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During my week in the Solomons, I encountered a broader range of product quality than I did in Guyana. Although Honiara, the capital, is generally unattractive, it’s Coral Sea Resort could succeed as a lifestyle/boutique hotel in any capital city, with design-forward architecture, excellent service and the best restaurants I encountered in the country.

The Heritage Park Hotel, in the former colonial governor’s residence, also had very attractive public spaces, and I passed one or two other properties that would not induce culture shock.

Unlike Georgetown, several attractions can be experienced while staying in the capital, from diving to trekking to World War II memorials.

Even those seeking greater cultural insights can begin their orientation in Honiara. Not far outside town in Lumatapopoho are adherents of the Solomon Islands’ Moro Movement, which seeks to preserve traditional ways of life. They have developed a visitors program to share practices that were once widespread but are endangered in all but the most remote areas.

I was greeted there by Primo and Paula, each wearing traditional clothing: he, tapa cloth made from bark; she topless, in a grass skirt. They were assisted by their three grandchildren. 

Primo began with a betel nut welcome ceremony (and explanation of its significance), followed by Paula’s demonstration of cooking with hot stones and a “bamboo barrel.” 

From there, they showed how bark is pounded into cloth and explained thatching techniques. It ended with instructions on how to start a fire without matches.

While these presentations are pointedly for tourists, it was more dignified than Disneyfied.

The Solomon Islands minister of culture and tourism, Bartholomew Parapolo, center, poses with Taiwanese travel agents attending the tourism fair “Mi Save Solo” (“I know the Solomons,” in island pidgin). To his left is Ministry of Culture and Tourism permanent undersecretary Andrew Nihopara.

The Solomon Islands minister of culture and tourism, Bartholomew Parapolo, center, poses with Taiwanese travel agents attending the tourism fair “Mi Save Solo” (“I know the Solomons,” in island pidgin). To his left is Ministry of Culture and Tourism permanent undersecretary Andrew Nihopara.

American and Solomon Islands flags fly above the Guadalcanal American Memorial in the hills above Honiara.

American and Solomon Islands flags fly above the Guadalcanal American Memorial in the hills above Honiara.

The entrance of the design-forward Coral Sea Resort in Honiara.

The entrance of the design-forward Coral Sea Resort in Honiara.

Primo, an adherent of the Moro Movement, works to preserve Solomon Island traditional culture. He welcomes visitors to the village of Lumatapopoho to demonstrate the customs and a lifestyle that is fast-disappearing. Here, he performs a betel nut welcome ceremony as his grandchildren watch.

Primo’s wife, Paula, folds a banana leaf as she shows how to prepare food using hot rocks and coconut milk.

Primo stands in front of a traditional house before beginning a lesson on creating woven designs with leaves.

Primo, an adherent of the Moro Movement, works to preserve Solomon Island traditional culture. He welcomes visitors to the village of Lumatapopoho to demonstrate the customs and a lifestyle that is fast-disappearing. Here, he performs a betel nut welcome ceremony as his grandchildren watch.

Primo’s wife, Paula, folds a banana leaf as she shows how to prepare food using hot rocks and coconut milk.

Primo stands in front of a traditional house before beginning a lesson on creating woven designs with leaves.

Where royalty relaxes

I had been particularly glad to see the Moro demonstration after a highly anticipated overland trip to a traditional village had been canceled following heavy rains that made area rivers impossible to cross.

That trip was to have been an excursion from Tavanipupu, which is, without a doubt, the finest resort in the country.

Located on its own island at the eastern edge of Guadalcanal, Tavanipupu is owned by the Solomon Islands National Providence Trust, to which all Solomon Islanders contribute. Although residents would qualify for a discount, only a tiny fraction could afford to stay there.

It isn’t traditional five-star luxury but features many luxe components. Guests are treated to a “welcome massage.” Afternoon tea — house-made organic lemongrass, if desired — is served in-room. Laundry service is complimentary.

Accommodations are in one of eight generously sized bungalows, among them a royal suite that has actually hosted royals William and Kate.

Its manager for the past two years, Mereoni Adimeisau, instituted a series of upgrades. She had previously worked at resorts in Fiji, Tahiti and the Cook Islands before being recruited and readily rattles off her additional plans.

“I’ve finally hit the jackpot with the expatriate market by getting an air taxi,” she said. “I’m looking to fill a nine-seater with weekend packages.”

With an eye on the American market for weddings, she is building a ceremonial platform on the highest point of the island. “They could rent the whole island if they want,” she added.

She has her finger on trends, having already done away with plastic bottles and using only bamboo straws. Gluten-free? No problem. 

“The focus is on local,” she said. “We stopped serving steak for that reason.”

All that said, WiFi does not yet reach most rooms (she’s working on it), the power is apt to go out periodically and, depending upon when and how hard it last rained, the water in the shower might get a bit nippy. The rooms are not bug proof, though that could likely be said for any room in the country.

Despite its upscale positioning, Adimeisau keeps expectations in line by also insisting its greatest virtues are “relaxation, a rural environment and authenticity.”

And indeed, although my planned excursion from Tavanipupu didn’t get to the village with grass skirts, a visit to an alternate village was arranged that gave me a sense — admittedly superficial — for how some rural Guadalcanal residents live.

What was most revealing about the character and culture of Solomon Islanders were the lengths to which residents went to try to please and make me feel welcome. When the resort couldn’t find a vehicle that could ford some of the smaller streams we’d encounter en route to the village, they persuaded the local police to chauffeur me there in the back of a four-wheel-drive paddy wagon.

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The view greeting visitors as they step off the pier at Tavanipupu, the Solomon Island’s most upscale resort.

The resort’s royal suite has actually hosted royals: William and Kate.

O’oa villagers, in eastern Guadalcanal. One of the children is blond; it’s a genetic trait of Solomon Islanders, and has nothing to do with Western contact. About one in 10 islanders is blond.

The panpipe is the national instrument of the Solomon Islands, and the 2nd annual panpipe festival in Honiara attracted panpipe bands from around the country.

The view greeting visitors as they step off the pier at Tavanipupu, the Solomon Island’s most upscale resort.

The resort’s royal suite has actually hosted royals: William and Kate.

O’oa villagers, in eastern Guadalcanal. One of the children is blond; it’s a genetic trait of Solomon Islanders, and has nothing to do with Western contact. About one in 10 islanders is blond.

The panpipe is the national instrument of the Solomon Islands, and the 2nd annual panpipe festival in Honiara attracted panpipe bands from around the country.

How authentic is authentic?

On the question of authenticity, perhaps one feels closer to the reality of a destination when visiting a country like Guyana or the Solomon Islands because they are holdouts in an increasingly homogenous world. From Paris to Beijing, from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, one finds the same stores, the same restaurant chains, the same hotel brands. But not in Georgetown or Honiara.

Still, even in the less-developed world, it’s difficult for travelers to say they have done more than etch tiny scratches in the surface of a destination, let alone be able to judge if their experiences were truly typical or reflective of a culture or place.

To better understand the search for authenticity, there may be a corollary at the other end of the spectrum. For many transient occupants of luxury hotels, luxury is not a way of life; rather, it’s an escape from the day-to-day. Visiting a developing country offers a similar escape from normalcy, but payment is made in a different currency, paid for in comfort, convenience and predictability.

Is either form of travel objectively superior? 

With complete detachment, one would simply say, “Pick your poison.” But adherents of either of these styles of travel see poison only in the choice of the other. 

As a travel advisor, which cup do you offer? 

As a traveler, which do you accept?

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