Authenticity vs Fantasy tourism

Today I read an interesting article entitled ‘Cultural tourism is not like Disneyland’ by Zohar African Safaris. They propose an interesting analogy between cultural tourism and Disneyland, whereby the tourist experience is created to satisfy the tourist’s desires and fantasies in the same way that Disney aims to do. They argue that tourism shouldn’t be ‘make believe theatre’ like Disney, and that tourists should be subjected to an authentic experience, rather than one that they may perceive to be authentic based on their preconceived notions, but which is actually a lie. This led me to think about some of the tourist experiences I have had.

Last year I visited the famous tribal village in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where the local community invite tourists into their village for a fee to stare at them and take photographs, and sometimes buy souvenirs.

Long neck tribe

To me, this was clearly inauthentic, staged for the tourists with the primary aim of making money. A tradition amongst the local community from many years ago had been kept alive, arguably at the detriment of the local people, not because it is tradition, but to fuel the tourism industry. So if I knew it was this way, why did I visit? Well, as much as I hate to admit it, I followed the crowd. ‘Everybody returns from Thailand with photographs of the people with the long necks, I want to do the same’ I thought.

But what sticks in my mind is whether the average tourist actually believes this show that they put on? We, as tourists, see the photographs before we leave. We believe this is the way the local people live. We believe we have an authentic perception. And with all of these preconceived perceptions, is must be real?

Authenticity vs Fantasy tourism

But when you look beyond the photographs and the tourist smiles, you actually see real hardship and sadness. These people put on an act for the tourists, without the tourists their lives would be very different. So if it would not be this way without the tourist, how can the tourist have an authentic experience?

Another experience that comes to mind is my ‘Jungle Book’ tour that I did in Goa back in 2009. The people on the tour were largely package tourists that had ventured away from their usual Benidorms and Magalufs and that had little cultural knowledge of India. Here we were were shown a ‘traditional’ Indian village (where I saw the locals had flat screen TV’s in their huts), we taught the children English nursery rhymes (which they already knew), we ate ‘traditional’ Indian food (but chips were an option) and watched ‘traditional’ Indian dancing round the camp fire in the evening (while enjoying a nice cold Gin and Tonic).


I was very aware that the experience I endured was not representative of reality, however many of the tourists were not. When I asked if chips were part of their traditional cuisine upon seeing them as a dinner option (and knowing the answer already) the local staff were shocked at my question. They clearly do not have many tourists as inquisitive and suspicious as me.

I had a wonderful time, and so did the other tourists it seems, so did it matter that they were presented with a Disneyfied representation of local life? Is it moral that they were led to believe it was authentic when it was not? Should ethics take priority over the benefits from tourism?

My third example is not one that I have personally experienced, but one that seems to be dominating the media at present-orphanage tourism. Many tourists want to go and volunteer abroad in places such as Cambodia, Argentina or Nepal. They want to give their time and money to help children that have unfortunately been orphaned. But are they really orphans?

It has recently been highlighted that many children are being taken away from families and placed in orphanages to fuel the volunteer tourism industry and to help make money, sometimes children are illegally stolen, and other times the families are paid for their child. The tourists are oblivious to this, and as opposed to helping these communities, they are actually contributing towards crimes and broken families. How would you feel if you found out you had been a part of this unknowingly?

Image- Tourism Concern

Image- Tourism Concern

Tourism would not exist without the tourist, so it seems the obvious choice for the industry to play to the desires of the tourists. But where should we draw the line? How much ‘fantasy’ is too much?

I think this is a very interesting topic and I have no doubt that there are countless examples of ‘fantasy tourism’ throughout the world. Have you had any first hand experiences? What are your views? Feel free to contribute by commenting below!