The controversy of slum tourism
As the demand for “authentic” experiences grows, so does the popularity of poverty porn.
The nexus of poverty and tourism has created slum tourism, a highly controversial niche of travel that involves tourists paying to visit the most impoverished and overcrowded areas of the world. As the demand for “authentic” experiences grows, so does the popularity of poverty porn. From the slums of India to the townships of South Africa and the favelas of Brazil, it seems travelers are increasingly curious about the living conditions of local people. The spike in popularity of this branch of the travel industry, which is often called voyeuristic, is one that brings up a moral dilemma about the harms of slum tourism and what good, if any, it brings.
What are their intentions?
Slum tourism is a form of tourism that involves tourists visiting impoverished, underdeveloped areas. It’s also referred to as “ghetto tourism” or “township tourism”, and even “poverty porn.” The word slum itself is defined as an area that is overcrowded, uncomfortable, and unfit for human habitation. So why are people so interested in touring slum areas?
Why do people tour slums?
This may be the biggest question slum tourism faces-- why? In order to determine whether slum tourism is altruistic at all, we first have to understand the intentions behind it. According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, it seems most tourists visiting slum areas were primarily motivated by their own curiosity.
However, in his book Slumming It: The Tourist Valorization of Urban Poverty, Professor Fabian Frenzel, found other motivations. Frenzel’s research showed that slum tourists were interested in hearing the stories of people from marginalized communities and the injustices they face. He believes that the main reason people go on slum tours is to educate themselves.
Whether the intention is curiosity or education, this kind of tourism is not new despite its increase in popularity over the last decade. Ghetto tourism is not a new phenomenon though. In the 1800s, people in London from high social classes found excitement in venturing to the poorer areas of the English capital. It became popular again in the 1990s when apartheid ended and tourists wanted to visit the house of Nelson Mandela. Now, decades later, slum tourism is an industry that brings over one million tourists to infamous barrios and townships every year.
The criticisms against it
Slum tourism has been strongly criticised, and for good reason. Having westerners coming to poor neighborhoods to look at poverty behind a bus window, taking photos of malnourished children is wrong for a multitude of reasons.
The first of which claims that touring underserved communities often perpetuates poverty. By turning slum areas into a tourist attraction, some also believe it lessens the importance of addressing said poverty on a political level.
Then, there’s the exploitation of locals living in impoverished areas. Most of the money made from these tours don’t directly go back to the communities the tour companies are visiting, which makes slum tourism exploitative. If a tour isn’t benefiting the local community, especially in areas where the locals are in need of economic support, it’s clearly not an ethical business.
Not only can it be argued that slum tours are exploitative when profits don’t benefit the local communities being toured, but it can also be degrading. Local people might feel like zoo animals, getting photographed by strangers without giving consent
The arguments for it
There are some bad apples in the lot, of course, people exploiting the opportunity in the worst way possible. However, most of the companies running tours are trying their best to give their venture a humanitarian dimension. There are some who argue about the positive impacts of these slum tours that are operating with a people-before-profit ethos.
The first is the economic argument. Tours in any area create growth and employment. Tours in underdeveloped areas sometimes result in local people taking advantage of these new opportunities by opening small businesses of their own. Tourists who make purchases from these locally owned and operated restaurants, convenience shops, and souvenir stores are spending their money in a way that directly boosts the economic environment of that area.
Slum tours can also break down the prejudices that surround these neighborhoods and their residents. Tours that are operated with education and connection in mind present the opportunity for tourists to become more socially aware. People touring less affluent areas of the world are often surprised when their tours don’t include gunshots as background noise and children looking happy rather than sitting on the streets with bloated bellies and flies in the corners of their eyes. Slum tours, when done the right way for the right reasons can open people to new realities and strip them of the biases they might have once carried with them. It allows the story to change from a narrative of victimisation to one of resilience.
Visiting underdeveloped areas with underserved communities may clue in the government that there is something of value they are missing. Instead of slum tours being fully degrading, it is possible that showing the unique aspects of these places can be empowering to the locals. It is much harder for the government to ignore a community when it’s pushed into the spotlight by hordes of tourists giving it attention. Locals can feel emboldened by the fact that they are seen and that they matter.
How can it be done the right way?
The arguments for slum tourism can only stand if the tours are operated in a moral and ethical way, that’s driven by the marginalized communities themselves with an emphasis on social awareness for tourists. There are many markers of a slum tour that is operating with respect for the communities they are traveling through.
Taking walking tours is a great way to reduce the “human zoo” mentality of these tours. If you are simply being bussed through a community, staring at locals and their living conditions through the window of a vehicle, you are neither learning about local life nor engaging with residents.
Tours should operate with a strict no photo policy except in spots that are specified before the tour starts.
Small tours, ones with less than 10 people, create less traffic and noise through a residential community, allowing residents to enjoy their environments with less disruption.
Slum tours should always inform visitors of what is to be worn, letting them know if any attire could be deemed culturally inappropriate.
Finally, it is best to go on tours with companies that employ locals (they are the experts after all), and are entirely transparent about the profits of the tours and what percentage of those profits make it back to the community the company tours through. The percentages of profits distributed should be significant and should be funneled to local projects, charities, and educational initiatives.
At the end of the day, in order for slum tourism to be a more ethical part of the travel industry, slum tour operators and local governments must address the economic and political issues, reorganize the distribution of resources to benefit marginalized communities, and understand that slum tourism - while potentially a helpful tool when done ethically - is not a long-term solution to ending the problem of global poverty. They must also consider the voice missing from the many debates over slum tourism-- the voice of the local residents.