Written by Nickolas Bartel

Imagine you are walking around campus and a prospective student touring were to ask you for a list of things to do to have an authentic W&J experience in a day. It would be quite challenging to do to boil the entire student experience into a 24-hour period while making sure that the potential student will leave with a rich and full understanding. At the end of the day, the experience of that prospective student on a tour can never truly equate to the full experience of what is like to be a college student.  

Now this situation is real life for the millions of people worldwide who work in all forms of tourism from ecotourism to in museums. As more tourists will return to traveling and visiting these tourist hotspots following millions being vaccinated every day, there will be a rekindled impact that tourism has on the culture and livelihoods of the people in these areas. 

These problematic cultural impacts start with the perceived goodwill of the tourists attempting to ensure that their trip brings them meaning and a feeling of change either through learning something new or changing their perception on the world around them. However, these things that they are looking to learn from are based upon their expectations of what that area may be. So, tourist destinations have altered their operations to ensure that the public facing part of the attraction meets that standard even at the detriment to their own community.  

This is happening now in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. It is a country that is known worldwide both as a global biodiversity hotspot and a nation known for its protection of nature. This specific region of Costa Rica is known for turtle hatching grounds and the surrounding national park. However, the influx of international tourists has changed the way of life for the residents. From the beginning of the town in the 1930s until the early 1990s, much of their municipal solid waste was buried as it was mainly biodegradable. However, with ecotourism, it brought more trash with it as tourists had a level of expectation of what amount of waste and composition of said waste was acceptable which meant more plastics and other non-biodegradable items were disposed of. This led to the creation of an incinerator in 2000 which they intentionally tried to hide it to preserve keeping the rendered experience for the tourist intact of being environmentally friendly. However, this incinerator eventually led to many breakdowns and lacked a filtration system spewing dioxins and an ashy powder all over the town.  

Now in that story, the public by-and-large did not think too much of it as they continue to travel and visit the town as a key tourist hotspot. However, there are some tourists who want to go behind the scenes to try to find the “truth” of what the experience is like. This has led some tourist destinations to create behind-the-scenes experiences in which the guest will go through a prearranged and controlled display of what the “genuine” experience is like. This is comparable to an Admissions overnight stay for a prospective student. While there are a lot of things that they can see of what life is like as college student, there is a lot more going on behind the scenes like training the people to serve in those roles to watch over them or outlining what they will do along each step of their stay to create that packaged experience for the student. This idea of behind-the-scenes experiences is also known as a false back where the tourist company portrays something as if the visitor has access to the “authentic experience”, but in reality, it is controlled and managed along the way.  

One example of this is in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica where there is a cooperative called Coopesilencio that publicly displays a story of how the farmers banded together to create this co-op following the abandonment of the local banana plantations by the US-based company called the United Fruit Company in 1955. It presents itself as a place for harmonious and environmentally friendly agroforestry and an ecotourism location promoting supporting workers. They also have guided village tours and other behind-the-scenes experiences for visitors. However, what they portray themselves to be is not what actually happens. Coopesilencio is a significant producer of African palm which has had connections with unsustainable deforestation, loss of biodiversity, displacement of local populations, and the increasing risks associated with a lack of biodiversity such as their investment being more vulnerable to changing conditions or blights. Furthermore, despite calling themselves a success story with working for better labor conditions, many of their workers cannot access the same benefits as others as a majority are not themselves a member of this cooperative. 

So how should we be a smarter traveler to ensure that we do not fall into these pits of false authenticity? Well, ultimately there is no such thing as an inauthentic experience because the authenticity of an experience is solely your perception of the situation. One’s experiences make up their life story, so when traveling and trying to find the authentic experience of how “real people live”, they are trying to briefly live someone else’s life instead of just looking to live their own and blaze their own trail. Similar to how it is impossible to fully tell a prospective student exactly what they should expect from college every day for all 4 years given the sheer time it would take to explain it all, we instead live it day by day as we make our own experience at W&J. So, when you are doing your research into your next vacation, wherever it may be, instead of looking for the most authentic experience, try to find the experience that is the most eco-friendly, the most supportive of local communities, or even just the experience that you find to be the most fun.  

Mannon, Susan E., and Bonnie Glass-Coffin. “Will the Real Rural Community Please Stand Up? Staging Rural Community-Based Tourism in Costa Rica.” Journal of Rural & Community Development, vol. 14, no. 4, Brandon University, Rural Development Institute, Dec. 2019, pp. 71–93. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhosthttp://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=aph&AN=141407278&site=eds-live&custid=s9006354

Meletis, Zoë A., and Lisa M. Campbell. “Benevolent and Benign? Using Environmental Justice to Investigate Waste-Related Impacts of Ecotourism in Destination Communities.” Antipode, vol. 41, no. 4, Sept. 2009, p. 741. Complementary Index, EBSCOhosthttp://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=edb&AN=44016152&site=eds-live&custid=s9006354