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Authenticity and Commodification in Tourism

Authenticity and Commodification

Cultural tourism is becoming increasingly popular in our time. It creates a complex network of social, economic, and cultural relations through the demand for specific goods, services, experiences. Also. Tourism forms the supply of such goods, services, experiences. The process of commodification in tourism has attracted a wave of criticism as it is corroding and inflating the genuine, authentic culture. However, voices in favor of tourism that have raised recently try to advocate the double nature of the tourism’s impact on cultures. The aim of this paper is to analyze and discuss the concepts of authenticity and commodification in tourism as they are viewed in critical articles. The point of discussion is the extent of authenticity found in touristic settings and how authenticity is affected by commodification.

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This paper focuses on three articles representing three approaches to authenticity and commodification. Dean MacCannell expresses traditionally pessimistic existential view in the article Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Setting (1973). John Taylor in Authenticity and Sincerity in Tourism attempts to comprehend the impact of tourism as a part of cultural reality and to introduce the concept of “sincerity” into the interaction between the tourists and the local culture. Work Commodification, Culture and Tourism (2002) by Robert Shepherd, while recognizing the change in Maori social and cultural relations under the influence of tourism, advocates the positive side of such an impact.

Existential Search for Authenticity in Maccannell’s Interpretation

MacCannell’s central idea is that “tourism absorbs some of the functions of religion in the modern world” (1973, p. 589). His notion of authenticity has much in common with a religious notion of the sacred. He poses tourists as modern pilgrims who travel in quest for authenticity, doomed for failure like the search for the Holy Grail. By MacCannell, this quest becomes a characteristic feature of post-capitalist society. People in the contemporary society realize the degree of their alienation from nature, spiritual world, and simple social relations that are perceived as pure and pristine. They suppose it is possible to find authentic experiences while making cultural tours in order to be acquainted with ancient civilizations or primitive societies. Thus, in MacConnells’ work, authenticity is equated with pristinity and purity that has escaped the tarnishing touch of civilization.

Assuming that authenticity cannot be found in tourism, MacCannell notices that “the term “tourist” is increasingly used as a derisive label for someone who seems content with his obviously inauthentic experiences” (1973, p. 592). To prove that the quest for authenticity is destined to fail, MacConnell interprets and develops Erving Goffman’s theory of “front” and “back” regions. Having a back region by itself, suggests existence of secrets, skeletons in the closet, the idea exploited by touristic operators to lure customers. While the tourists strive to penetrate into the “back” region in hopes to touch real, authentic life as opposed to neat façade offered to them, MacConnell argues that such penetrations are strictly portioned and supervised. When the tourist deems to enter the real back region of the visited society, he enters only one or another level of the staged back, purposefully arranged for such penetrations. In fact, real penetrations into the “real” back region occur mostly by accident.

Touristic consciousness is motivated by its desire for authentic experiences, and the tourist may believe that he is moving in this direction, but often it is very difficult to tell for sure if the experience is authentic in fact. It is always possible that what is taken to be entry into a back region is really entry into a front region that has been totally set up in advance for touristic visitation. (MacCannell 1973, p. 597)

MacCannell develops the structure of staffed touristic settings. Stage 1 is, actually, Goffman’s front region, the façade of the society for the outsiders. Stage 2 is a touristic front region decorated to create an atmosphere of a back region (e.g. waitresses in national garments, folklore music in a local cuisine restaurant). Stage 3 is a front region that is “totally organized to look like a back region” (live shows, simulations). Stage 4 is a back region with authorized access to outsiders (e.g. incursions into private life of the Hollywood stars). Stage 5 is a back region cleaned up or altered for occasional tourist visitations. Finally, Stage 6 is Goffman’s real back region that is the aim of tourist quest for authenticity (MacCannell 1973, p. 598).

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MacCannel blames tourism for its inability to provide an authentic experience. It arranges so many layers of staged reality that it becomes almost impossible to tell what is authentic. He places the touristic experience acquired in tourist settings lower than intellectual research that is able to penetrate through these layers in anthropological or ethnographical studies. The value of a touristic experience is also lower than that of a mere experience because “a mere experience may be mystified, but a touristic experience is always mystified” (MacCannell 1973, p. 599).

MacCannell interprets authenticity as an objective quality pertaining to a certain culture, event, or experience. Meanwhile authenticity of experience is a subjective phenomenon. Depending on the level of sophistication and expectations of the tourists, the same event can be perceived as authentic by one person and rejected as inauthentic (correctly or incorrectly) by another (Getz 1998, p.417). Considering another point, a ritual can be a commercial product but not less sacred for the performer if filled with a spiritual meaning, as in case of Fuhua, Dongba performer in Lijang: “Fuhua’s own interpretation of the ritual is framed through his embodied practice” (Zhu 2012, p. 1510). To sum up modern criticism of MacCannell’s concept of authenticity, Kohl remarks that “visitors perceive how authentic something or some place is based on their own personal background, expectations of what they think they will encounter, and particular qualities of that place or object” (2014, p. 1).

Taylor’s Notion of Sincerity in Tourism

The time span between MacCannel’s and Taylor’s articles is almost thirty years, and yet authenticity, albeit much discussed, has not received a uniform definition. Each researcher offers his ideas of authenticity (Taylor 2001, p. 8). Taylor explains dichotomic nature of authenticity. It becomes a touristic value when it implies a clear distinction from the modern both in temporal and spatial aspects. Authenticity in tourism is objectivistic, related to reproduction of objective reality. Taylor’s authenticity concept is based on “a dialectic between object and subject, there and here, then and now” (Taylor 2001, p. 8). He introduces the notion of “sincerity” into the study of authenticity in tourism. While in plane philosophy these notions are related, sincerity shifts the accent from objective reality to communicative interaction valuable in itself and for both parties involved (Taylor 2001, p. 9). To illustrate his concept, Taylor refers cultural tourism to the Maori people in New Zealand.

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Taylor disputes MacCannell’s idea of authentic as pristine. In logical extension of that view, parallels with authenticity of local (non-western) cultures are paralleled endangered species, for which a “natural habitat” is the condition for authenticity. As soon as it encounters other cultures, it is not itself anymore. Thus authenticity is rather mythological than objective notion. “The moment that culture is defined as an object of tourism, or segmented and detached from its indigenous sphere, its aura of authenticity is reduced” (Taylor 2001, p. 14).

While real authenticity is problematic to experience (even impossible if it stipulates absence of cultural interaction), relative authenticity is an attainable positive value. Cultural tourism to Viking heritage described by Halewood and Hannam could be mentioned in support of the notion of “relative authenticity”. The level of authenticity varies from Viking Ships’ Museum at Bygdøy that are icons of authenticity and Jorvik archaeological site with an attempt to reconstruct life-like Viking village with mannequins, to theme park Viking Land with live actors and Viking markets where the level of commodification is at its highest (2001, p. 574-576).

Taylor considers that “movements towards authenticity create positive value” (2001, p.11). It is important both for the industry and for the culture because commodification provides means to preserve and maintain authenticity (though relative) of the sites. Although the notions of “sincerity” and “authenticity” are significantly different in accent and approach, they do not contradict each other and can be combined in tourist events.

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In cultural tourism, authentic merges with the notion of “traditional” that again means temporal and spatial distance between subject and the object, the tourist and the other. In these terms, tourism acquires its existential sense described by MacCannel and impossibility of the quest to be fulfilled. Touristic advertising brochures, for example, advertise “staged” reality in which Maori receive unified image of-all-times. The brochures flatten the reality by presenting depersonalized “traditional” Maori girl and Maori warrior in “traditional” costumes (fashionable in the eyes of white people on the turn of centuries). The tourist can see museum exhibits, participate in traditional rituals, listen to traditional music, taste traditional Maori food, or buy traditional handmade articles. The touristic “traditional” does not know tribal differences, specific events of personalities important for the Maori; the explanation of the rituals and traditions are superficial, deprived of its spiritual meaning; the settings are decorative and theatrical. It is true that in tourist settings the reality is staged and all its aspects commoditized and meaningless. In fact, the shorter and more organized is the tour, the fewer possibilities remain for the tourist to penetrate behind the “front” and the staged “back”.

However, native touristic operators take another approach to presentation of local culture in touristic events. Their offer implies cross-cultural communication, where the notion of “sincerity” is applicable. A visit to marae, a sacred gathering place, provides the opportunity not only to observe traditional Maori lifestyle and rituals but also to converse with the locals. It breaks the strain of temporal distance and shifts the focus from the past into the present, from the staged to the living. Such a touristic event implies another level of social interaction, which is not an “insidious and dangerous false back” (MacCannell 1973, p. 599) but a interpersonal sharing of experience between the parties.

Rather than solely playing on authenticity, with its attendant essentialization of Maori as a mythological pre-contact society, cross-cultural encounters based on sincerity allow for the communication of more localized identities, which appeals to modernist views regarding the authenticity of Others. In the second, the marae visit, a so-called “staged back region” approach is taken by local operators in which the point of contact is made to revolve around issues of sincerity as well as authenticity. (Taylor 2001, p. 12)

Since moderns strive for authentic experiences and are ready to pay for them, the experiences and all accompanying goods and services become commodities, bought and sold. They acquire additional value that significantly differs from their initial use-value. Such commodification affects all spheres of life that come in touch with tourism: material objects as well as immaterial aspects, such as culture, social relations, customs and traditions, rituals and religion receive a monetary equivalent. The process of commodification is corroding for the society because when immaterial is treated in monetary terms, it loses its primary meaning, becoming goods for exchange. Tourism industry is built on commodification and goes farther and farther to cash all aspects of life in visited communities.

Shepherd’s Interpretation of Commodification

Shepherd (2002, pp. 186-187) analyses assumptions about commodification in tourism. He derives the notion of commodification from Marxian dichotomy between use-value and exchange value of an object. Everything tradeable is a commodity. In these terms, it refers not only to goods and to services but to immaterial things, such as culture, experience, even feelings. Shepherd proves that commodification is inherent to social relations and opposition between natural use-value and commoditized exchange-value is exaggerated. In his opinion, “aesthetic and cultural objects are as much commodities as are seemingly non-cultural objects aesthetic objects” (Shepherd 2002, p. 188). Furthermore, the distinguishing between cultural and economic value as sacred and secular, good and bad, belonging to the temple and belonging to the market, does not work in complex reality. As the result, extreme market and cultural critics both refuse to recognize continuity between the two spheres of value.

Commodification is not a lopsided phenomenon, it can have a positive impact as well. Cultural tourism can stimulate a revival of the interest of local people to their indigenous culture; at the same time, it provides means for preservation that culture and material remuneration for the local actors. While the “quality” of cultural product is reduced and averaged, most tourists’ interest lie in having a rather symbolic souvenir than a real work of art. This point of view is supported by Taylor’s observations (2001, p. 22) and the research of Mary Ann Littrell (1990). She argues that although for different categories of tourists the value of local crafts (textiles in that case) is different, in most cases purchased articles, apart for aesthetic pleasure, are valuable as a reminder of a unique experience, a symbol of another culture (Littrell 1990, pp. 241-242). On the other hand, mass production of cheap copies of real art leads to devaluation of art and culture itself. This point is argued by the opinion that a large number of cheap demand-oriented articles increases the value of the real art.

In addition to that, Getz even considers a protective function of commodification, since it can serve as a barrier between intruding tourists and host communities that prefer to remain more or less closed from outside penetration, like the Amish (1998, p.415).


There is no clear definition for the notion of authenticity, and that is one of the proofs of its subjective character. A Western person looking for the “lost paradise” will search in vain for authenticity in an existential sense elaborated by MacCannell. The quest will make him loop from one staged reality to another without any satisfaction. Despite a tremendous appeal of this theory for contemporary intellectuals, a rational approach suggested by modern scholars appears to be more appropriate in the context of reality. If authenticity of an object can be judged quite objectively, for example, a painting by Raphael or stone idols of Rapa Nui, in other cases it is more difficult to define whether an object is authentic or not. Besides, authenticity of experience is a subjective perception and its value is proportional to the satisfaction the tourist receives.


Objective authenticity of cultural objects and phenomena is reduced in interaction with tourists. In fact, touristic interest inevitably results in commodification that rearranges social and cultural relations in the target culture to satisfy tourist demand to the fullest. Bad or good, it is reality and since local cultures cannot be returned to their pristine, virgin state, their objective authenticity cannot be restored. In this context, relative authenticity proposed by Taylor is a positive and attainable notion. Sincerity that refers to communicative cultural interaction shifts the perception focus of authenticity from the past to the present, thus filling the tourist event with new significance. Such interactive encounters, as in marae of the Maori people described by Taylor, make the individual experience both sincere and authentic.

The evils of commodification, although obvious and indisputable, appear to be not absolute. Local communities concerned with preservation of authenticity of their cultures can make use of commodification as a means to maintain that authenticity. Pure evil and pure good are rather philosophical categories derived of and projected onto reality. In the variable and many-sided reality, local communities have to find balance between commodification and preservation of their authenticity.


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