I often wonder if a tourist experience can ever be ‘authentic.’ Do visitors want authenticity? Do they even recognize authenticity when they see it? Whose responsibility is it to prepare them for it? Do people expect rice and beans or fillet steak… or perhaps a nice splattering of both?
As a small travel company, aiming to bridge the fields of tourism and development, The Responsible Safari Company has found that offering the best of the best is perhaps not what travelers want or expect from their visits to Malawi. On a visit to one of our linked community projects, we aim to give visitors the opportunity to integrate, to understand more about the issues facing Malawi, to provide a platform for cultural exchange and to act as a model of ecotourism/geotourism. On paper, this appears to be a winning formula, but in practice there’s an unavoidable clash of expectations.
Before trying to understand and provide travelers with authentic local travel experiences, we have to understand what travelers want to gain from the experience, what their expectations are and if the experience we are offering can really live up to that. I write a lot about responsibility, especially since my company’s name reflects a belief in the ‘responsibility’ the tourism industry holds. Still I find myself struggling: Can I protect the authenticity of the projects I support? Do the projects we support match the expectations of people who are visiting them?
We fortunately rarely get complaints from our clients, but when we do, they usually rings along the lines of ‘Everything was too good, we felt too spoilt: the cold buffet lunch of fillet steak sandwiches was delicious but we would have preferred to sit with a local family and eat their food of rice and beans.’ Or ‘The community project experience was wonderful, but we felt that it was all a bit staged.’
The problem is that the community projects with which we work want to show visitors about Malawian culture and teach them about the work they do, but only after each visitor has received an appropriate welcome. You see, a traditional Malawian welcome of singing and dancing is a must for any visitor who comes from outside the community, not just our clients. An authentic Malawian welcome is done to make visitors feel at home, to bring them into a new community. But many of our guests, particularly the experienced travelers, do not like this part of the visit. I can see that. And yet, if our guides do not call the project shortly before they arrive, the project staff are furious, as they are not ready to receive the guests.
I myself feel awkward sitting on the only chairs a project has and watching people dancing, singing and staring intently at me. I too feel like I am watching something staged. But what did I expect instead? To walk into a community, as a stranger, and sit down with a family, eat local food and watch everyday life without anyone wondering why I am there, what I might have brought with me or wanting to welcome me?
Ideally yes, I guess, but isn’t that unrealistic and slightly arrogant?! If I have visitors to my home, I welcome them with my traditions, more likely a cold beer, crisps and guacamole. I would be slightly taken aback if a stranger dropped in unannounced, walked around my house and expected me to be relaxed and continue with my daily chores while they watched me.
When guests come to a Malawian community, should they not leave their expectations and utopian ideas about authenticity at the door? Is it at all possible to do that? Is it necessary or indeed a responsibility for tour companies to prepare guests for what they should ‘expect,’ or is part of the experience the surprise, the lack of expectation? Or, controversially, should the projects try harder to fit into the model of authenticity expected of them by many visitors?