Slum tourism, also sometimes known as ‘ghetto tourism’, involves tourism to impoverished areas, particularly in India, Brazil, Kenya and Indonesia. The purpose of slum tourism is to provide tourists with the opportunity to see the ‘non-touristy’ areas of a country or city.
While slum tourism has gained some international notoriety in recent years, it is not a new concept. In the mid-19th century, wealthy Londoners would travel to squalid East End homes. The first visits began under the guise of “charity,” but in the following decades, the practice spread to homes in American cities such as New York and Chicago. On demand, tour operators developed guides to tour these impoverished neighborhoods.
Slum tourism, or seeing how the other half lived, died out in the mid-20th century, but regained popularity in South Africa due to apartheid. However, this tourism was fueled by oppressed black South Africans who wanted the world to understand their plight. The success of the film “Slumdog Millionaire” brought India’s poverty to global attention and slum tourism expanded to cities like Dharavi, home to India’s largest slum.
Modern tourists want an authentic experience, not the whitewashed tourist areas that were so popular in the 1980s. Slum tourism fulfils this desire, offering a look at the world beyond their personal experience.
As in all areas of tourism, slum tourism may or may not be safe. When choosing a tour of the slums, guests should use due diligence to determine if a tour is licensed, reputable on review sites, and follows local guidelines.
For example, Reality Tours and Travel, which appeared on PBS, takes 18,000 people to tour Dharavi, India each year. The tours highlight the positives of the slums, such as their infrastructure of hospitals, banks, and entertainment venues, and their negatives, such as lack of space for homes and bathrooms and piles of garbage. The tour shows guests that not everyone has a middle-class home, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a vibrant life. In addition, 80% of the revenue from the tours is re-pumped into community improvement projects.
Unfortunately, other companies, taking similar names and logos, offer “tours” that do not show the positives and negatives, but rather exploit the community. They also don’t pump funds into the community which are disadvantages of slum tourism.
Because there is no standard yet for slum tour operators, tourists must determine for themselves whether a particular tour company acts as ethically and responsibly as it claims.
The favelas of Brazil, slum areas usually found on the outskirts of big cities like São Paulo, attracting 50,000 tourists every year. Rio de Janeiro has by far the most slums of any city in Brazil. Federal tourism to the favelas of Brazil is encouraged by the federal government. Tours provide an opportunity to understand that these hilltop communities are vibrant communities, not just drug-infested slums depicted in movies. Trained tour guides take tourists to the favela by van and then offer walking tours to highlight local entertainment, community centres, and even a get-together with people who live there.
In general, photography is prohibited in poor neighbourhoods, preserving respect for the people who live there.
The government’s goals for touring favelas include:
- explaining the economics of a favela (employment, welfare, rental markets and more)
- highlighting the infrastructure of the favela (hospitals, shopping, banking, fashion and entertainment)
- touring schools and community centers
- touring community projects
- interacting with citizens and visiting their homes
- enjoying a meal at a local restaurant
While Brazil has carefully structured its program for slum tourism, concerns remain. Despite regulations and guidelines, some tourists take photos and share them on social media. Whether it’s for the value of shock or in an effort to enlighten the world about the plight of people in the slums, these photos can do more harm than good. Also, some tour operators exploit tourists, claiming that their tours support local businesses without actually giving back to the community. However, perhaps the biggest concern is that when slum tourism goes wrong, real-life suffers.
Responsible slum tourism relies on government guidelines, ethical tour operators, and considerate tourists. When these come together, tourists can have safe travel experiences, gain a broader world view, and communities can benefit.