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Authentic outsiders? Welcome to the age of the ‘post-tourist

Guess what: post-tourism isn’t all that different from ordinary, run-of-the-mill tourism. David Blackwell.

Authentic outsiders? Welcome to the age of the ‘post-tourist

In the last decade, the tourism industry has been overtaken by a new kind of tourist: one who avoids popular sites and abandons their maps.

Welcome to the age of the “post-tourist”.

The term “post-tourist” is commonly used to refer to a new breed of travellers, those who eschew common tourist “hotspots” and opt for a more unconventional experience, immersing themselves in “local culture” for an extended period of time.

As German broadcasting organisation Deutsche Welle put it in August:

Tourist attractions and hotels are boring, as far as the “post-tourists” are concerned. Instead, they want to get an authentic feel for the cities and places they visit.

‘Tourist’, ‘resident’ or somewhere in-between?

Travel Plans (1875), by Adolf Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Writing in 2010, urban planner Johannes Novy described a blurring of the prior divisions between tourism and everyday life, but conceded that post-tourism, as we now think of it, is not especially new:

It’s rather that these different forms of tourism have become more prevalent in the city as tourism has grown and diversified. The niche has become mainstream, so to speak. But it has been happening for a long time. The slumming and flaneurism of the late 19th and early 20th century in Weimar-era Berlin essentially involved the activities we now call “new tourism”.

Seeking ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ experiences

With the rise of this supposedly “new breed of traveller”, more and more people are hoping to immerse themselves – with the help of technology and organisations such as Airbnb – in local culture and environments.

The concept of post-tourism has already gained much traction among travellers questioning the authenticity of merely sightseeing, who seek out so-called “real” places. But the concept of “authenticity” is where post-tourism, and tourism in general, runs into trouble.

Trevi Fountain, Rome. Tony Gentile/Reuters

Sociologist John Urry, author of The Tourist Gaze (1990), argues that “there is no authentic tourist experience”.

In their 2010 book Key Concepts in Tourist Studies, Melanie Smith, Nicola Macleod and Margaret Robertson argued that the post-tourist:

embraces openly, but with some irony, the increasingly inauthentic, commercialised and simulated experiences offered by the tourism industry.

So perhaps post-tourism isn’t all that different from ordinary, run-of-the-mill tourism. Visitors still take guided tours by locals, have no need to learn the language thanks to translator technologies, and endlessly seek “authentic” experiences.

A couple takes a selfie at the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in Cusco, Peru. Pilar Olivares/Reuters

There is also much work dedicated to debunking the myth of the “real” in tourism. Debbie Lisle, writing in Tourism and Politics (2007), posited that:

The myth of modern tourism is centred on the possibility of encountering authentic difference – seeing the “real” Bali, engaging with the “real” Spaniards, having “real” adventures by getting off the beaten track […] But as tourism became a truly global industry in the 1990s, that myth of authenticity became more difficult to maintain.

A man takes a picture as Legong dancers walk during Kuta Karnival at Kuta Beach, Bali. Beawiharta/Reuters

Indeed, the only “real” places in the world, according to Lisle, are conflict areas and war zones affiliated with death and violence.

“Post-tourism” is an ambiguous term, certainly, but it invariably suggests something of a departure from everyday “boring” tourism. The rise of the post tourist – as an offshoot of the dreaded hipster and their avoidance of tourist hotspots and maps – is symptomatic of this “tourism-as-performance” phenomenon.

The pitfalls

Yet post-tourism is changing – even adversely reshaping – the very culture of cities in a way that echoes the many issues surrounding gentrification.

Sociologist Japonica Brown-Saracino’s 2010 study, The Gentrification Debates, emphasised the global and local basis of “tourism gentrification” in the context of modern urbanisation – a gentrification that – as argued by Michelle Metro-Roland of Western Michigan University in Tourists, Signs and the City (2011) could lead to making city environments more “sterile”.

The painted East Side Gallery, a former part of the Berlin Wall. Paul Zinken/AAP

Berlin is now considered by many to be the post-tourism capital of the world. Referring to that city, Thomas Rogers argued in his 2015 New York Magazine article, that post-tourism and gentrification together can render “formerly sleepy neighbourhoods” instantly “more upscale and exciting”. But when established residents and businesses are forced out due to tourist expectations, other issues emerge:

(This) taps into a host of other resentments – about American entitlement, about being required to speak English, about a calm neighbourhood being hijacked for the sake of someone else’s cliché idea of Berlin hedonism.

The resultant “blurring between the local and non-local” will continue not only to shape Berlin, but “the future of tourism itself”. Visitors immerse themselves in the culture before taking off for another city, but the residents remain.

A 2012 left-wing protest against what many see as an exacerbating climate of gentrification in Berlin’s Liebigstrasse. Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

Still just tourists after all

Post tourism abides by narratives of self-righteous struggle, “tourist-shaming” those who continue to visit predictable tourist spots such as the Berlin Wall or the Eiffel Tower. Hence, post tourism is partly defined by an underlying sense of posturing where travelling is concerned.

In essence, post-tourists remain tourists in spite of their perceived differences from ordinary tourists. As Lisle noted:

It is not the case that only intrepid travellers can access the “real” while passive tourists are content with the “fake” – in the global theme park, there is no difference between the real and the fake, between the authentic and the staged, and indeed, between the tourist and the traveller.

After all, the post-tourist shares all the same attributes and insecurities as the ordinary tourist.

Their desire for “reality” is all the more troubling considering the limits to which any expat can realistically immerse themselves completely in “real” culture. Any traveller or tourist in another country inevitably remains an outsider.

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