Mike Sowden has a thoughtful post about travel, authenticity, and modernity:
So is authenticity the opposite of modernity?
No – it can’t be. We know travel is a form of escapism, but where can we escape to? A perceived goal of authentic travel is, in the words of Pam Mandel, “the perfect interaction with the culture we’re visiting”. But whatever remote corner of the world greets our feet, it’s the first decade of the 21st Century. Wherever we go, it’s all modern.
Maybe that sounds crazy. What about the honest-feeling traditions we encounter around the world – the old ways of doing things that we fall so in love with at first sight? Yep, they’re modern too…and the fact you’re seeing them at work means they’re successfully modern. Putting aside the enormously tricky ethical issues for a second – if you’re watching ‘traditional culture’ reenacted in front of you, it’s an invention. It might be largely accurate, it might be 99% fiction, but it’s redesigned for now.
Along the way, he tries to get to a plausible account of authenticity that avoids status-seeking, avoids being caught up in the fetishization of the poor, or the underdeveloped, or the anti-modern, but which also tries to avoid the feeling of compromise or betrayal that goes along with the whole paying-for-authenticity angle. Here's his working definition:
an authentic experience is one that can’t be dictated to us... A moral, ethical choice to do something in such a way that satisfies our core sense of what is good and right.
This is a good try at salvaging the idea of authenticity as a useful goal (for travel, anyway), but I'm not sure it will work. To begin with, I think that searching for an "authentic experience that can't be dictated us" is just another brilliant marketing plan. Even when it is not, I worry that what seems like a "moral, ethical choice" is to0 shot through with class biases and our aesthetics of taste and distaste. At its heart, this strikes me as simply a restatement of the very problem that motivates the entire authenticity hoax in the first place. To the extent to which it doesn't do so, it turns every decision we make into an authentic one, which has a distinctly Buddhist charm to it, at the cost of making the use of the term pointless.