High in the Himalayas, a family of four journey around Bhutan, an ‘unspoiled’ country rich in natural beauty, Buddhist monasteries, hiking trails, and happiness. The parents are also YouTubers and are capturing the entire experience on high-resolution cameras. They title their video – a gorgeous vlog of Bhutan – as ‘we travelled to the last authentic country in the world.’  Much to their credit, the comments are overwhelmingly positive and are delighted to learn more about Bhutan and how people live in one of the most remote countries on earth. 

This is Flying The Nest; an Australian-based YouTube travel channel, featuring the vivacious Jess and her husband, the amiable Stephen, as well as their two young children. With over a million subscribers, viewers are enchanted with well-produced travel vlogs in destinations across the world. Some are less common holiday choices: Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, and Montenegro, which rarely match the devotion commanded by, say, Italy or Iceland. Flying The Nest’s curiosity, and adventurous spirit, endears them to viewers and that’s partially why they have a successful channel amidst an economic downfall and a global pandemic. 

They are a joy to watch and offer temporary escapism from any mundane reality. Whilst absorbing their videos, I noticed Jess and Stephen’s intense enthusiasm for travel, where neither are embarrassed at their passion and excitement towards discovering new places. Flying The Nest, therefore, encourages us to see the beauty, and wonder, existing in our own world. The finest examples of escapist storytelling do this, too. Both J.R.R Tolkien and J.K Rowling built their fantasy worlds through taking inspiration from geographical sites across Europe. The lush, green valleys of Lauterbrunnen were transformed into the Elvish kingdoms found across Middle-Earth.

Travel journalists, meanwhile, do not use fiction to portray their journeys, and instead opt for realism and documentary filmmaking. Flying The Nest’s videos are a delightful fusion of both.

Yet, their content also exists in an era where tourism is under intense scrutiny from journalists, environmental activists, governments, and local communities. According to Dave Keating for the Energy Monitor, overtourism is harming the climate, particularly in popular cities such as Dubrovnik, Prague, and Barcelona. Yet Venice – the home of cats, canals, and carnivals – suffers greatly from overtourism, with the core lagoon sinking. National Geographic has argued that saving this medieval city from flooding may require destroying it.

Hence the call for greater authenticity, and responsibility, for tourist activities. Writing for the Conversation, Adam Dennett and Hanqun Song explore the yearning from travellers, particularly millennials, for authentic experiences. The solution – as they position – is immersing yourself among local cultures and environments, whether it is a Southeast Asian cooking class or an exploration into Australia’s Indigenous peoples and rituals. Rick Steves’ philosophy compliments this thinking. ‘Experiencing the real Europe requires catching it by surprise, going casual… through the back door.’ Authenticity, therefore, is found in peculiar and unassuming places.   

However, this is a weak conception of what authenticity actually is, especially in regards to Europe, an industrialised and wealthy continent often treated as a museum or a relic from a bygone era. The economist Lawrence Summers agrees with this framing. ‘Europe is a museum,’ he declares, ‘Japan is a nursing home and China is a jail.’ Beyond the often urgent discussions about declining fertility and rising authoritarianism across China, the descriptions inflicted by Summers against Europe, at least on the surface, are crude. 

Europe is not a museum – its population is over seven hundred million, many of whom are workers, students, parents, artists, toddlers, and dreamers who share similar ambitions to those all across the world. Many Europeans do not live in places worthy of an expensive Instagram campaign. However, the places often dismissed as ‘inauthentic’ such as Berlin and Dublin, are fundamental to the national identity of millions. Tourism is also a massive sector for the European economy. Outsiders to the continent, particularly Americans and Australians, ought to remember this. 

The authenticity of these places, meanwhile, is discovered among the ‘off-beaten path’ and the ‘main sites to see’, as both represent the real Europe. The former, like a lifeguard breathing into the mouth of a rescued child, gives life to the latter. Neither can exist without the other and it’s impossible to imagine a Europe without either. Rick Steves’ ideas on back-door tourism must coexist with appreciation, and acknowledgement, of the more obvious sights shaping Europe, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or a red double decker bus stuck in a crowded London. My experiences travelling through Europe have illuminated the importance of appreciating both.

On a January night in Florence, I walked towards a tunnel in the hopes of finding the pick-up spot for the following days’ trip to Assisi. The dark sky, when combined with harsh wintry winds, did not create the enchanting atmosphere found outside the Trevi Fountain or at Venice during twilight. The Florentine suburbs, tunnels, and roads were pedestrian yet also wild and disorderly. Graffiti soiled the streets like stains on an old tablecloth. This was, by all means, an authentic Italian experience. Yet that doesn’t lessen the authenticity I experienced within the historical centre of Florence. The beloved museums – the Uffizi, the Academy of Florence, and the Pitti Palace – were created, and nurtured, by marvellous men and women over the ages. Visiting Florence, or any historic city, is an opportunity to appreciate those who have shaped the world today, typically for the better.

A pristine art gallery is just as authentic as a carpet-weaving cooperative in Cappadocia. I may not physically see the Medicis or the Old Masters while roaming through the Florentine grounds. Yet I can feel, and comprehend, their presence throughout my visit. Whilst gazing upwards in St. Peter’s Basilica, my mother comments about the amount of hours, and resources, spent on maintaining the lavish complex of the Vatican. The golden walls and angelic portraits did not arise from nothing. St. Peter’s Basilica – and other great relics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – came from the hard work and diligence of those before us.

This is a different type of authenticity. It’s certainly not a humble kind of authenticity, as St. Peter’s is lush and extravagant with Renaissance wealth, which has long been an asset of the Catholic Church. Yet there is also the opportunity for reflection on humanity and our capacity for greatness. In the Sistine chapel ceiling, Michelangelo portrays Adam stretching his finger close to God’s. To some theologians and art historians, this suggests the unattainable divine perfection by man. Yet there’s another approach: Only Adam, the embodiment of human creation, can come close to God. Seeing Adam come so close – but not close enough – reminds us of our own journeys and quests towards greatness. This emotional intimacy, born from old art and culture, is deeply authentic. So often, travel journalists reduce authenticity to a physical reality. There’s a good reason for this: international travel feasts on the five senses, and turns all countrymen into foreigners. Yet authenticity is also born from reflection, engaging with history, debate, art and music, as well as honesty. Tourists may deny themselves authentic experiences if they begin from a shallow definition of what authenticity is. 

As an Australian myself, I appreciate Flying The Nest’s promotion of various landmarks and regions in the South Pacific’s largest nation, whether it is the Whitsundays, Cairns, or the Outback. These voyages are love-letters to Australia’s capacity for wonder and mesmerising beauty. In addition, there are many other travel journalists who have magnificent content, such as Allison Anderson, whose photography and narration remains unmatched. Neither Allison Anderson nor Flying The Nest are shallow or inauthentic. If anything, their content reveals the possibilities and rewards travel can bring.

This benefit is important to remember, particularly in ongoing (and often controversial) discussions about environmentalism, the responsibilities of tourists, and the role heritage plays in the 21st century.
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