Friday 23 February 2018

Katie Byrne: Does the 'authentic' holiday experience exist?

The accidental tourist

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I've been flirting with the idea of going on one of those last-minute sun holidays - or 'flop and drops' as they are known in the travel trade.

These are holidays for people who like to spend their time off exploring different sunbathing vantage points before going off-the-beaten-track on day three by ordering a banana split rather than a knickerbocker glory for dessert.

Suffice to say, they aren't for everyone.

Some people can't contemplate a holiday that doesn't have an itinerary, just as they can't understand people who would visit another country only to relax on a sun-lounger.

While 'flop and drops' make a beeline for the complimentary welcome drink, their conscientious travel companions head straight to the display stand of glossy tourism pamphlets. A sunset cruise with bottlenose dolphins! A Segway tour around a WW1 cemetery! A zipline adventure in a local olive grove!

Conscientious holiday-makers get up early, if only to fill their rucksack with 14 bananas from the breakfast buffet. They also make a point of walking past your sun-lounger as they head off on one of their many excursions. You'll hear the squelch of sensible footwear first, closely followed by an indiscreet tut.

How, they wonder, could somebody luxuriate in the sun with a Jackie Collins novel when they could be discovering formations of stalactites and stalagmites during an 'incredible underground journey by boat'?

Why, they ask, would someone prioritise perfecting their tan over mastering the local language?

Ah, but judge not lest ye be judged. You see, there is another ilk of holidaymakers who think of themselves as significantly more cultured than their tick-the-box tourism underlings. Splashworld waterpark? You must be joking. The tourism trail is anathema to their sophisticated sensibilities. In fact, they don't even like to think of themselves as tourists. No, they are intrepid travellers, circumnavigating the globe one Lonely Planet recommendation at a time.

These global citizens wouldn't be seen dead with a super-size duty-free Toblerone in their backpack. Instead, they come back bearing local wood-crafted gifts - even if their next-door-neighbour doesn't know what exactly he's supposed to do with another tribal mask.

A cruise ship is their idea of purgatory; they couldn't imagine queuing up for the Eiffel Tower and they'd rather eat a worm than visit Disneyland. Actually, they once ate a worm while in Nigeria. It tasted like chicken. Then there was the time they visited a silent retreat in Rishikesh...

The intrepid traveller would have you believe that they just chanced upon these experiences after days of trekking through the scorching heat. They never mention TripAdvisor.

They also fail to mention encroaching globalisation (which they think of as American imperialism) lest it disturb the wandering vagabond facade.

And what is this exotic brew that you are drinking? Er, coffee... So is it traditional for the men of the village to gather together on a Sunday? We're just watching the football, mate.

As for the time they visited McDonald's in the Negev Desert in Israel? Never happened. Or the moment the ayahuascero in Peru reached into his cloth satchel and took out an iPhone 6? No, didn't see that.

It's all about the living-like-a-local photo opportunity, even if they had to pay those barefooted street children to get into the shot. They want the 'authentic' experience, even if it means coughing up €100 a night for the privilege of living off-the-grid in a glorified hut in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay.

It should be noted that the intrepid traveller's idea of authenticity simply means no other holidaymakers. Especially that annoying couple that seem to turn up everywhere they go - typical tourists.

They write off entire countries for being "too touristy" yet they seem to forget that those pesky tourists come from all over the world. If you really want to experience other cultures, you won't get a better chance.

Watching a live-to-work American couple spending their precious five-day vacation in an all-inclusive resort in Mexico could be as anthropologically-enriching as attending a Berber wedding ceremony in the Atlas Mountains. Talking to the Japanese tourists in the queue for the Eiffel Tower might prove to be as fascinating as partaking in a voodoo ritual in Haiti.

Intrepid travellers want to experience intimate moments with local people, yet they underestimate the intense human connections that can occur while lying poolside. After all, listening to Les and Lorraine from East Anglia open up about their daughter's cancer could resonate with you long after the memory of Machu Picchu has faded…

The 'authentic' holiday experience becomes a fallacy when you realise that off-the-beaten-track is more an attitude than it is a destination.

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