The townships of South Africa, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai’s Dharavi slums — here, residents eek out an existence amid crushing poverty that most in the developed world can’t begin to imagine. However, the sheer morbid curiosity about those living in such conditions has spawned a controversial form of voyeuristic tourism. It’s often dubbed “slum tourism,” “poverty tourism,” or just “poorism.” Whatever you call it, it’s a niche industry designed to commodify the world’s worst slums for fun and profit.
The concept of “slumming” has been around since at least the 1800s. The word even found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884, so it’s nothing new. In the mid-19th century, well-heeled Londoners would day-trip to the city’s East End to leer at the downtrodden. In subsequent decades, tourists and well-to-do locals tip-toed through Manhattan’s Lower East Side to glimpse the lives of the city’s poor. As South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement reached a tipping point in the late 20th century, interest grew among tourists to witness the conditions of the country’s notorious townships firsthand. So the seeds of modern commercial slum tourism were sown.
In the decades since, the niche has grown to include dozens of areas throughout the world. Slum tours can now be found from downtown Detroit and the Dominican Republic to Copenhagen and Berlin. In the wake of films like Slumdog Millionaire and City of God, demand for slum tours in India and Brazil (among others) has grown exponentially. Conservative estimates peg the annual number of worldwide slum tour-goers in the tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands. Realistically the numbers are much higher — perhaps more than a million every year.
In the past few years, social media has also fueled an increase in tourists’ need to capture the next big, new, and Instagram-worthy “thing.” There’s a blissful (read: ignorant) sense that many experiences which were once dangerous, controversial, or downright taboo can be undertaken safely and with little to no consequence. Bungee-jumping is now a relatively safe sport; African safaris are now about as dangerous as a trip to Chuck E. Cheese; and even the summit of Mount Everest is attainable by any reasonably fit person with sufficient discretionary income. So, when tourists are presented with an opportunity to cruise some of the world’s most horrifying places to live — smartphone camera in hand, from the safety of an air-conditioned shuttle surrounded by tinted windows — it’s easy to see how morbid curiosity takes over. After all, those tourists will never actually interact with those on the other side of the glass.
However, long after the Instagram pics are posted and those tourists return home, slum residents are left with the real sting of exploitation. Kennedy Odede grew up in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi with a population of more than one million that’s believed to be Africa’s largest. In this bleak op-ed written for The New York Times, he recalls his firsthand experience of slum tourism from the other side of the glass:
“I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.”
Odede puts a finer point on it by concluding: “Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.”
This isn’t to say every tourist sets about to exploit slum residents. It’s clear many believe that a better understanding of those living in such areas is a way to help. But how, exactly? University of Leicester professor Fabian Frenzel literally wrote the book on the topic of slum tourism. In an interview with Forbes, he argues there’s something to be said for basic awareness:
“Slum tourism is happening … people are actually going on three-hour tours in favelas, then many more politically inclined travelers would say ‘That’s horrible, how can you do this? Obviously that’s voyeuristic,’ and so on. [But] if you decide to do this you are at least showing some interest in the fact that there’s inequality, and that is something that, fundamentally, is a good thing in comparison with people who go to Rio and say, ‘I will not look at this,’ even though it’s clearly there.”
However well-intentioned, gawking at the poorest of the poor through glass like zoo animals isn’t helping matters much. Unless those visiting the slums are motivated to act, these tours are unlikely to solve anything.
Many slum tour operators are quick to point out their work is a way to give back by infusing local communities with much-needed cash. They counter that they directly stimulate the economy by providing jobs to local guides. That may be true. But there’s little industry oversight and no adequate mechanism in place to determine how profits from these tours are directly benefiting communities. Most tours also include visits to community projects such as the building of new schools or educational centers by NGOs. These stops are intended to provide tour-goers with, not only a sense of where the community is, but where it’s going.
In many ways, the current model of slum tourism borders on a blissfully ignorant “Disney-ified” experience for travelers. Until tourists can interact meaningfully with locals, and reliable regulation can track the direct benefits these tours provide to their host communities, slum tourism will continue to be a moral and ethical minefield. Right now, it hardly seems to benefit either side.