Last Updated on June 3, 2023 by Ellen
Travelers, wanna-be travelers, and travel bloggers in social media groups use the now-popular term “authentic travel” quite a lot. It means having deeper cultural experiences instead of waiting on lines to get the perfect Instagram shot.
I’ve used the term a lot, too – on this blog and in social media posts.
Some travelers look for “authentic experiences” away from traditional tourist zones. I’ve done that for years myself.
But I’ve come to understand cultural experiences can happen anywhere, anytime, if I remain open to special experiences all around me.
Newly vaccinated Americans ready to resume travel after years of pandemic sacrifices don’t seem to realize how desperate people are for income in developing nations that rely on tourism.
I’m in several Facebook travel groups and members seem to have this general idea that everything will be the same as it was before the pandemic. Maybe, one day.
But for now, people in places reliant on tourism, like in the Philippines and Thailand, are down spirited. We’ve been to both countries in the COVID era.
First let me share what it was really like to live in a former tourist hot spot in a developing nation the first two years of the pandemic. With our slow travel stopped, I was forced to look at “authentic travel” differently.
An “authentic” view of travel’s impact
In Malay, Aklan, Philippines, which includes famous Boracay Island, spouse Theo and I know people who needed food, money for utility payments and hospital bills.
There are so many unemployed and underemployed people of all ages. Before the pandemic, tourism was the economic engine of this entire region.
Young people put off college. Mothers wrestled with overseas contract options as nurses or nannies or maids — their families desperately needed money, but moms don’t really want to leave their kids.
Out-of-work, white-collar professionals lived off family and friends a long time – until there was nothing left to go around.
Can you imagine? You lose your office job and now you have to fish to eat? Could you do it?
People tried to sell food they make in their kitchens. And you should know: a kitchen can be a coconut shell as a pan on an open fire, often with charcoal because it’s cheaper than wood.
We know people who make charcoal. It’s a long, dirty process that nets few pesos for huge effort over many days. But, it’s something, and something is better than nothing.
These people are desperate for jobs and income as they held on to dignity.
Trike drivers politely fought for my fare. People lamented how they missed the booming business days, how they still can’t afford to pay for big things like loans, or small things, like birthday cakes for kids.
Recession & suicides
The Philippines is in a recession, the fiscal deficit is growing. As one official put it: “It’s really getting to be very concerning.” Time will tell what the new president’s administration will do.
The national government’s official news agency finally acknowledged suicides before the country reopened to international tourists. A news article on travel and tourism quoted an official as saying local governments must “restore economies to prevent further incidents of hunger, crime and suicide(,) which are among the negative social effects of the pandemic.”
I never wrote about the suicides in the Philippines on this blog before that public admission. But we knew for a long time. Suicides became an issue in the first year of the pandemic.
And Thailand’s situation is worse. Thailand had the highest suicide rate in Southeast Asia before the pandemic, and the largest increase in suicides in the first year of the pandemic.
By early 2022, the Thai suicide rate was nearly six times higher than before the pandemic.
During our visit to Thailand in the first half of 2022, at least a quarter of restaurants and shops were closed in Hua Hin, where we spent a month, We also spent a month in Bangkok – a muted version of its pre-pandemic self with traffic that flowed, its night markets dark, and airport empty.
Watching people cope
One day in the Philippines, I saw a long of people stretched for half a mile on Boracay Island. They waited for food packages from Barangay (neighborhood) Manoc-Manoc. There wasn’t nearly enough sustenance in the meager packs: a little rice, a few dried fish, a juice box. For an entire family.
Honestly, most people I knew didn’t want hand outs. But what other choice did they have with no tourism?
They had relied on income from Chinese, Korean, Australian, European, American, and wealthy Philippine visitors.
Sometimes, I feel like this is a test of my faith. Or maybe it’s a bad dream.
Or maybe: it’s not about me, or you, or fashionable labels we privileged travelers get to toss around.
Maybe it’s a test for our humanity.
While all developing nations struggle — not only the Philippines and Thailand — Americans book trips on luxurious, wasteful cruises and bubbled tours to Europe. They are vaccinated, lucky travelers who want to go somewhere. They all miss traveling.
I used to think of developing countries as our ‘playgrounds’ for budget slow travel in early retirement. The cost to ‘live’ in poorer countries with generous tourist visas is so much lower than places like Europe. It is easy for us to afford an early retirement lifestyle outside of the U.S.
Also, I used to seek out destinations with fewer tourists. I thought those places would give me a more ‘authentic’ travel experience.
Now I see I was wrong.
Boracay is the “crown jewel” of Philippine tourism. Its White Beach beats most others on Earth for many reasons. I love it there. But I love where we temporarily lived on the nearby ‘mainland’, too.
I rode the ferry from Boracay to the mainland with workers from posh hotels. They go to modest homes and struggling families on the mainland. These were the people lucky enough to work in places that were open for domestic tourism.
I watched unemployed men on the mainland build toy sailboats with their children to pass the time, and maybe make a friendly little bet.
Local children grew taller, thinner. Barefoot, dirty kids in the dusty port town Caticlan tried to sell bunches of greens that I guess would be edible if boiled.
Not everything was hard. They had their faith, the sun and the sea. And maybe some cheap rum or moonshine. The really lucky families had someone with a government job to keep stomachs from growling too much.
Or maybe they knew a couple of budget slow travelers in early retirement who bought them some groceries.
Authentic travel revelation – within the ordinary
On any given day, there could be cows, carabao, goats, pigs, roosters, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, frogs, and more, grazing in fields or playing on the beach steps from our door.
Sunrises and sunsets in the rural part of that island-nation are breathtaking and the stars filled me with wonder and gratitude.
We were invited to parties, dinners, beach days, hikes, and, sadly, funerals.
Friends with gardens brought us coconuts, bananas, papaya, and more; they shared fish, squid, chicken, and more. We told them to stop – to save what they had for themselves and their families.
As I wrote the first draft of this post in May 2021, our neighbor came with an offering of fish. Almost too beautiful to eat.
It’s still hard for me to believe: we stayed in Malay, Aklan. Philippines, two years and one month.
Time and Earth rhythms fused into a three dimensional experience we call life. Our shared humanity. And that’s authentic, no matter where it is.
Our humanity is the ‘authenticity’ I had long looked for outside ‘heavily touristed’ places.
It’s ironic to me that the Universe used a tourist hot spot to teach me this lesson – that even ‘slow travel’ was too fast for me to see this, and I couldn’t learn it until I’d been stopped.
Thank you, God.
It’s the people, not the place
Now, is there an ‘authentic travel’ difference between an all-inclusive resort in Cancun, and a Mayan family weaving hammocks in Coba? You betcha.
Is a five-star resort on Boracay that caters to your every whim different from a small family-run hotel where you can use a communal kitchen? Absolutely.
But if you take the time to talk – really talk – to people serving your food, making your bed, checking you in, selling you sailing tours, or driving you around, you will be an authentic traveler no matter where you go.
So maybe don’t say, ‘I don’t want to go to Boracay because it’s too touristy.’ Maybe instead say, ‘I will find authenticity wherever I am.’
Because this former tourist destination has so many people – so many of our friends – hoping and praying you will come.
Note: Earth Vagabonds resumed global budget slow travel in 2022, but left parts of their hearts in the Philippines.
Thanks for reading, “‘Authentic travel’ revelation.”
Theo’s mom Diane stayed with Earth Vagabonds until late October 2020, and then returned to the U.S.