Is the quest for the authentic sustainable?

dsc09524Journeys of Sustainability took me around the northern part of Vietnam, providing a glimpse of what landscapes and life in the country can be. Staying in several home-stays in villages, a hostel in Hanoi and on a wanna-be-fancy boat in Ha Long Bay, I was given a chance to enjoy cultural performances, engage in discussions with other participants and our hosts and collect brief observations of realities along the way. The intense experience provided time, space and material to reflect on the hopes, motivations and the actions of people engaging in tourist activities, especially in places they consider exotic. As the journey went on it became a reflection on the intersection of quest for authenticity and sustainability. 

Establishing the authentic

It was to become our second home-stay among the lush rice fields. We arrived in our minivan, another one just like ours already parked in the small parking lot next to a well built guesthouse. As we walked up the stairs to find our sleeping places and put our bags down, we passed another group of foreign tourists who ignored our smiling faces and quiet hello’s. This was not unusual anymore, but did start a conversation within our group – what is it that makes people shut out part of the reality, part of what they see. It is not that us being tourists deserves a particular kindness from the side of other tourists. But there is a certain kind of acknowledgment of the presence of others that is common and practiced among people outside these tourist encounters in “exotic” places. When I enter a building and someone is already there and it’s not an entirely public space, it is a general courtesy to greet the other. Perhaps to show there is no hostility and no danger, perhaps just to establish a connection in a common space. But here the tourists tended to ignore each other – in home-stays, in hostel, in restaurants, on the village streets and even when in need for help.

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Our conclusions at that point were that the need to shut out the other tourists comes from the need to remain in an authentic setting that is part of the imaginary of the exotic place the person has worked up the courage or interest to travel to. The place of many unknowns, when nothing functions as the person is used to – the food, the living conditions, the flora and fauna are supposed to be different and sometimes challenging. And also the people, their culture, language, behavior has to be different from what is known and belonging only to the chosen place of travel and therefore authentic. Excluding other tourists from the scenery is a way for establishing that authenticity. It becomes about one-on-one relationship, seeing up close, finding something that noone else can have access to at that particular moment. Also – something unspoiled by the globalization. Something not for mass consumption, therefore perhaps more sustainable. 

Authentic and the mundane

Yet finding the authentic is not easy. Fashion, music, trends on social media travel across the globe and manage to reach even very remote areas. We took a million selfies with our Vietnamese companions, were served beer with dinner and Coca-cola with lunch, homes looked just like any homes might have in countries where it is not freezing for the most part of the year and two out of three home-stays had WC’s installed on their property. The procedures at home-stays were somewhat similar in all places and probably depended on our requests for certain services, e.g. dinner, space to interact a little with locals, place to sleep, breakfast. In two cases out of three we were sleeping in a building especially built for home-stays, while in one case we were divided in three groups and stayed each in a different family home. When talking about authentic, staying in the hostel and Ha Long Bay boat did not even come up. Out of all moments and experiences it is probably two that were considered the most authentic ones: staying in family homes and watching the cultural performance in one of the home-stays.

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Both of these moments were very different in what they could tell us about Vietnam. Staying in somebody’s home gave an insight in how people arrange their homes and what it feels like to spend a night in one. There was not much more than this in terms of engagement with the local life. While cultural performance showcased the traditional costumes, dances, music, songs of the people performing them. The performance also engaged the visitors, teaching them to play music, dressing them up in the costumes. Each of these provided a different kind of engagement with the locality – one with the mundane, the other with something museum-like, unchanging and static. What both these experiences had in common, though, was that they were staged, not based in real-time and incapable of interaction that might change the authenticity needed to be performed.

In this sense a more authentic engagement with Vietnam might have come from a late night walk around Hanoi when we decided to cross the Long Bien bridge. We never managed to make the whole distance, but as we walked towards the river on the bridge, the ability to disappear in the dark and appear only in pockets of the bridge where people stopped for soft drinks and couples sat and talked, gave the feeling of getting a little peak into the authentic mundane, something even the most good-wishing local hosts are reluctant to show, because it is considered less note-worthy. 

Consumption of authenticity

Authentic therefore often remains “easily served” – clear and obvious in its difference from the environments of the on-looker. This has become a winning formula for community based tourism enterprises around the world. Offering something that is clearly different from the hotel holidays, while making it comfortable and safe for the guests. But there are some aspects that still remain important even for those searching for authenticity – once it is found, there needs to be something that can mark the moment of success. Often it is selfies and filtered hash-tagged photographs. Other times it is a souvenir acquired in the place and time. It can be many things – a rock from the road, a dried flower or anything else picked up and taken with you. But most often it is a magnet, keychain, bag, local artifact, shirt, etc bought in one of the souvenir stalls.

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The first days we were traveling around Vietnam we were making lists of all the people we would need to bring “authentic” souvenirs to. And getting to village streets among the rice fields where every building was a souvenir shop with basically the same products made in China and Vietnam was somewhat a dream come true – most things were cheap and Vietnamese looking. But the magnitude of sameness soon brought us to confusion of not knowing what to buy and if at all. Souvenir business must be a fascinating business to study – how globalized the production chains must be to produce the masses of cheap stuff, yet still give the sense of authenticity and belonging only to the one part of the world. And soothing the souls of travelers wondering how to establish the really authentic sense of the place and the moment and take it back home as cheap as possible. 

Conclusion

Tourism is an industry of opportunities. People are curious creatures looking for something different – food, view, feeling. There’s always something new to look forward to. There’s always an escape from “it all”. With the dislike of the globalization and more awareness about the world comes also the need to experience something different from the known. Something authentic, especially if traveling halfway across the globe. And the authenticity as something outside the mainstream consumption hotel tourism can contribute to economic, environmental and social sustainability, as much as any travel across the world can ever do. But the problem with the authentic is that we still want to consume it, and cheaply while we’re at it. And it is our consumption patterns of the material and non-material aspects of authentic that either keep it sustainable or make it into another environmental and social development trap.

At the end of the journey I still do not know if tourism can ever be sustainable. Perhaps “responsible” is something more realistic, at least to begin with. And a good starting point for that could be taking the consumption out of the authentic practices.

Liga Rudzite

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