“Authentic travel experience” and “sustainability” at the ITB Berlin

authentic travel experience at a foul stall in Esna
Authentic travel experience at a foul stall in Esna, Egypt

The conference room is packed with men in suits with little flags or logos pinned to their lapels and wearing id tags around their necks. All are interested in authentic travel experiences for their customers. On the large front screen, a young woman in a bikini is snorkelling with dolphins. In the next shot happy tourists are participating in a “traditional dance” with locals.  Having done plenty of research in Egypt for our guidebooks, we recognize it as a tourist-only event. The so-called “Egyptian Evening” is a standard programme on every Nile Cruise, involving dancing and oriental dress-up as well as some Egyptian food on the all-you-can eat buffet.

Authentic travel experience and group tourism

The term “experience” is a recurrent tag line in other travel events and presentations we attend. According to surveys by the tourist industry, today’s tourists do not want mere sightseeing. What they want is “authentic travel experience” of the local culture and interaction with locals.

From our experience as tour guides as well as from our guidebook research work, we feel, however, that most tourists on package holidays don’t have so many opportunities to meet locals unless they really make an effort to get away from the programme. Certainly only few do, at least in more far-away “exotic” destinations. The tour operators, on the other hand, tend to discourage holidaymakers from doing anything on their own and instead promote their choreographed, tourist-fitted “experience programmes”, because the real-life experiences in many holiday destinations might involve different hygienic standards and less comfort.

authentic travel situation in a shared taxi
Natascha experiencing local culture in Tajikistan

This could mean an evening without air-con, or sharing food with others from a common plate, or sitting on the floor. In terms of the ITB, however “local experience” often means just another product the tour-operators are selling. Something that is consumed on the customer side just like food, sightseeing and information.

Fair and sustainable travel

Sustainability is the other big buzzword these days. There are several awards and a number of presentations and panel discussions on the ITB concerning sustainable tourism. The words sustainable and fair show up in every press release. Usually, there is not much content around them, however. Those panels where exports are actually suggesting concrete measures for environmental protection or fair working conditions are often not so popular.

Fair enough, the ITB is an industry trade fair. As a matter of course the companies try to use sustainability slogans mostly for marketing rather than actually meaning to pay for potentially costly measures. We found that almost none of the tour operators offers non-voluntary CO2 compensation in their tours, for instance, or renounces domestic flights.

We visited on the trade days – so the general atmosphere was one of “making business”. On the visitor weekend on the other hand, the focus is on destinations. Destination marketing officials are distributing flyers and ball-pens to attract people’s interest in potential travel destinations. 

But we wonder whether such an ambiguous strategy won’t backfire in the future. Some consumers, at least, may notice the discrepancy between empty promises and actual (non-environmentally friendly) behaviour, between “we protect nature” and chasing sleepy dolphins so that ever more tourists can take pictures with them?

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