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Visitors in Search of the ‘Real’

The search for (lost) authenticity and a desire to get ‘backstage’ (Pearce and Moscardo, 1986) to discover ‘real’ places is a long established, though contested, theme in narratives of tourist practices and experiences. ‘Getting off the beaten track’ has been more strongly associated with rural or wild tourism, and backpackers exploring exotic (to them) countries far from home. However, getting off the beaten track has become increasingly important to many city visitors, especially in WTCs, with their capacity to generate new tourism areas. Getting off the beaten track is central to the experience that some visitors seek, but for many others it is an element in their overall experience of the city; they want to both ‘see the sights’ and ‘experience the real city’ (Maitland and Newman, 2009). In London, we can see this as a consequence of changes in the nature of tourists and of the experiences they seek. These are complex, but we can identify the main factors. As tourism has continued to expand, so inevitably has the number of experienced travellers who have already ‘seen the sights’ - both literally as they return frequently to cities like London or New York City and/or metaphorically because they have travelled extensively and no longer see manufactured tourist experiences as a main focus of their visit. At the same time, we have seen more ‘connected tourists’ (Maitland, 2008): people who know the city well because they previously lived, worked or studied there or are connected to it by their friends and relatives. Connections mean these tourists have ready access to the ‘backstage’ off the beaten track areas, and perhaps a strong motivation to continue to explore the city they used to live in, or to experience the city life their friends, relatives or colleagues know.

Moreover, for experienced and connected visitors, the focus of city tourism is shifting. It is moving away from relying principally on exploiting tangible resources like historic buildings or museums and galleries, towards a concern with intangible resources, like lifestyle and image. This means that ‘having’ a holiday, or ‘doing’ the sights has less appeal than ‘becoming’ different through the effects of the tourist experience (Richards and Wilson, 2007). For Andersson Cederholm (2009), ‘being’ is an emerging tourism value: being with oneself, in a contemplative fashion; being with co-tourists, especially those with shared values and interests; and being with local people - an essential element in experiencing place. At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult to isolate and separate tourists and touristic practices as tourism comes to be seen as simply one of a suite of mobilities (Hannam, 2009) and touristic practices overlap with those of city residents (Franklin and Crang, 2001).

All these changes mean that for urban explorers personal integration into the city has become increasingly important. As Oliver and Jenkins (2003) put it, they want to ‘occupy the same physical spaces and satisfy their existential and material needs in the same manner as members of the host society’ (p. 296). Oliver and Jenkins developed their ideas in an explicitly rural context, but they are equally valid for cities because ‘the term integration is both fluid and evolving’ but can be seen as ‘tourism that is explicitly linked to the economic, social, cultural natural and human structures of the landscape in which it takes place’ and that includes the urban landscape. They go on to distinguish vertical and horizontal integration. Vertical integration focuses on links with the world outside the city, but more relevant to this discussion is horizontal integration, which ‘promotes greater embeddedness of the tourism product and tourism experience within ... the landscape’ so that visitors ‘consume more local products and activities’. They describe this as ‘soft tourism’, whereby ‘tourists albeit temporarily, “embed” themselves ... and experience locally distinct cultural activities, products and environments’ (Oliver and Jenkins, 2003, pp. 296-297). In the context of a WTC, urban explorers participate in soft tourism, as they enjoy a particular landscape of consumption, experience the distinctive aspects of place and embed themselves in everyday life. We can see embeddedness as key to experiencing the real. As Hall (2007) says, ‘Fakery occurs when the form of the physical or social object loses its integration with the everyday life of the place in which it is situated’, whereas ‘authenticity is born from everyday experiences and connections which are often serendipitous, not from things “out there”. They cannot be manufactured through promotional and advertising deceit or the “experience economy”.’ (pp. 1139-1140)

So urban explorers seek a soft tourism experience, which allows them to experience the real city by finding ways to embed themselves in it, and expose themselves to serendipity and the everyday. However, changes in the city itself mean they need to be resourceful to do so.

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