Earlier this year, as content and brand manager Tristan Jinwei Chan, 33, was descending from Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest temple, in Bhutan, he took a wrong turn and could not find his way back. Alone and unsure of where he was, he met a group of Buddhist monks. They invited him to join them for tea, then pointed him in the right direction.
On the way down, he met a security guard from the temple, who talked about the political pressures between China and India, and the changing life in Bhutan.
“I saw monkeys, deer and other wildlife. I picked mushrooms, saw landscapes and learned about life in Bhutan that I probably wouldn’t have experienced otherwise,” he says.
Authenticity is the latest buzzword in travel, with the promise of authentic experiences touted by everyone and everything from travel agents and tour operators to booking platforms and travel apps.
This year, the 2017 Expedia Millennial Traveller Report, which surveyed 21,000 consumers from 21 markets, including 1,000 respondents from Singapore, revealed that 59 per cent of millennials here think that experiencing the authentic culture of a destination is the most important aspect of travelling.
People are travelling more than ever before, says Ms Robin Kwok, country manager for Airbnb, South-east Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the way they travel is also changing as people – millennials in particular – place higher value on travel experiences over material possessions.
The manager of the booking platform for short-term lodging, homestays and vacation rentals adds: “When they travel, they want genuinely authentic experiences, the kind that allow you to get under the skin of a place, discover its hidden gems and understand its real character.”
This does not mean one must venture completely off the beaten track, however.
Authenticity can be found everywhere, even in the heart of the city. “Authenticity isn’t dictated by where you go, but the way you choose to experience it,” says Ms Kwok.
The Thai countryside is not more authentically Thai than Bangkok, for example. Nor is the pad thai noodle dish from the night market more authentic than the one ordered at a hotel restaurant.
Mr Gabriel Garcia, Expedia’s head of marketing and channel strategy for Asia Pacific, says authentic travel experiences can be found in many forms and price points.
“Authenticity can start with the place you are staying at and it continues based on the types of activities you want to pursue. Travellers need to think about what type of trip they want to embark on, then research and understand what is available to them,” he says.
For some, an authentic experience of a destination means checking into an Airbnb in a residential neighbourhood, buying groceries at the market and taking a stroll through the nearby park with the locals. But getting to know a destination does not mean one has to live like a local, says Ms Stephanie Chai, founder and chief executive of TheLuxeNomad.com luxury villa and hotel booking portal.
Travellers can enjoy an authentic experience, such as cycling along the rice paddies of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia, and return to their villa with a pool and luxe bed sheets.
“I think people want to stay somewhere great while also getting a local experience. Not all of us want to share a kitchen with a stranger,” she says.
For years, hotel brands prided themselves on providing a standardised experience for their guests. Customers knew what they would get when they walked into a Mandarin Oriental or a Novotel, for example.
Now, hotel groups and big chains are finding ways to cater to a growing demand for authenticity as more travellers look for accommodation which delivers a local experience.
The Hyatt Hotels Corporation is growing its Andaz luxury brand of boutique hotels, which reflect the unique cultural and design influences of each destination.
There are 17 Andaz hotels around the world, including the Andaz Singapore, which opens here this month. It is the brand’s first hotel in South-east Asia, with decor inspired by its location in Bugis and the shophouses in Haji Lane.
The InterContinental Hotels Group is also growing its boutique Hotel Indigo brand. There are more than 80 Hotel Indigo outlets around the world, including in New York, Paris, London and Shanghai, with 83 more in the pipeline.
No two hotels are the same as each is a reflection of its surroundings.
The Hotel Indigo Singapore Katong, which opened in July last year, for instance, takes its inspiration from the Joo Chiat neighbourhood.
Located in East Coast Road in the former Joo Chiat Police Station, it features colourful Peranakan tiles, ceramics and wooden furniture in the lobby. Its 131 guestrooms are decorated with vibrant Peranakan-inspired fabrics, with murals of local scenes on the bedroom walls.
Besides accommodation, travel today is also more than visiting the expected tourist attractions. The experiences one has while travelling are what make travellers feel connected to the local culture and people, says Ms Kwok.
Airbnb’s Experiences – launched in Los Angeles in November last year and in Singapore in March this year – offers 3,000 activities and tours designed by locals in more than 40 cities. There is a tour of Bangkok’s underground music scene with a local DJ and a soon kueh-making workshop at one of Singapore’s hawker centres.
Websites such as Withlocals.com, Vayable.com and Partywith.co also connect travellers with locals worldwide, while travel search engines such as TripAdvisor provide forums for travellers to get tips from locals.
Tour operators such as Trafalgar do the work for travellers by hiring guides with local expertise and curating unique activities for the group, such as meeting local farmers, dining with a family in its 17th-century farmhouse in France or foraging for wild seafood on the coast of Ireland.
Trafalgar’s chief executive Gavin Tollman says delivering such experiences is what his customers want.
“We believe that ‘tick-box tourism’ is not what is fuelling desires to travel as much as getting beneath the surface of a destination and understanding the local way of life,” he says. “We look for experiences that take our guests on an unforgettable journey, that tell a story and epitomise a snapshot of local life.”
This article was first published on The Straits Times