If one visits Jakarta, Johannesburg, Mumbai or Rio de Janeiro, one will most likely book a fairly decent hotel, eat well, emerge him or herself in the country’s culture for a little while and come back home full of pleasant memories. But some visitors – mostly westerners visiting developing countries – will want to have an “edgier”, “more challenging”, more “real” experience of a city. For that, they will go on so-called slum tours, a.k.a. tours of the poorest, most deprived areas of a town, armed with cameras, insatiable curiosity and fairly good intentions.
Slum tourism existed long before it became a modern subject of both interest and controversy. As early as the 1800s, rich Upper East-Side New Yorkers were lining up in the streets of the Lower East-Side, the Five-Points and other less wealthy New York neighborhoods, curious to see how the poorer New Yorkers were living.
But today, with urban areas becoming more and more crowded and with movies such as Slumdog Millionaire (set in the slums of Mumbai, India) or City of Gods (about the “favelas” in Brazil), it would be fair to call our era slum tourism’s golden age. Its popularity is creating an ever-growing sense of discomfort: could slum tourism be just plain voyeurism?
A Positive Experience
Although slum tours are not for the faint-hearted, most of the tourists get a surprisingly positive feeling from them. They call the experience life-changing, eye opening, touching; they claim seeing the “real”, “human” side of a city; the people they see touch them, by their faces lighting up when they talk to them. Although moved by slum habitants’ precarious life conditions, most of the tourists come out of the tours with a big smile, as you can see in testimonials from tourists who did the Salaam Baalaak Trust Tours in New Delhi, India.
But has they done anything for the people they met, for the inhabitants of the slums they have toured around? Did their presence help for the community? Is it a first step towards a most needed change?
According to Kennedy Odede, former inhabitant of the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, the answer is no. Odede, executive director of Shining Hope for Communities and a passionate slum tourism detractor, stated in an article published in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times that no matter how well intentioned the tourists are, the poverty and the life conditions they are witnessing in slum tours are complex realities that can never be fully understood and grasped in a two hours visit. And when the tourists leave the slums, they leave its inhabitants the exact same way they found them, except with something missing: a piece of their dignity.
Slum Tours Result In Actions
But for some tourists, such as Ivar Schou, a Norwegian citizen living in Bali who was stated in an article in La Gazette de Bali (article in French), his tour of the slums of Jakarta was a life changing experience, so moving and disturbing that he had to help community some more: he invested money in a mobile health clinic project in the slum.
Mister Schou is not the only one: some tourists do decide to take action after going on a slum tour. And perhaps that without visiting the slums in the first place, they would never have. Does a handful of good Samaritans justify slum tourism and makes it ethical?
Kennedy Odede has an answer to that question as well, and it is still no. According to him, the vast majority of the tourists visiting slums will do nothing after their tour. Witnessing such extreme misery is enough in itself. “Slum tourism, writes Odede in his New York Times article, is a one-way street”.
What Are The True Motivations of the Tourists?
The most pessimistic retractors of slum tourism think that slum tours are some form of twisted entertainment for the visitors: misery and desperate conditions are witnessed and “experienced”, but escaped from right after. Some even attributes to slum tourists unspoken intentions to compare themselves with the worst of the worst, and therefore, feel better about their own lives and their own problems. It is interesting to note that slum tourism reaches a peak every year during the Holidays and the first two weeks of February, prior to Valentine’s day: two periods that can be challenging for some in the western world, two periods that make many westerners feel like their life is lonely and meaningless.
It is only fair to ask what the true motivations of the tourists visiting extremely poor areas of developing countries’ cities are. If they genuinely had slum habitants’ rehabilitation at heart, there are ways to help them better then tour around their neighborhood with a camera. Countless organisms are fighting for the better health and living conditions of slum inhabitants. They are in desperate need of money and mentorship. Why not help them?
But, to come in slum tourism’s defense, one can also say that a lot of these organisms are the same who organizes the tours in the first place. In most cases, the money collected with the tours will go entirely or, at least, mostly, to the development of social programs in the slums. Some tours are free, but come with obligations, like one organized in local city dumps by the Church of Mazatlan in Mexico. If you agree to go on this tour, you have to give some of your time for voluntary work, helping the locals in various tasks.
No matter how heated the debate gets, slum tourism is getting more and more popular and will not disappear any time soon. Therefore, to keep it ethical and respectful, the question that must be asked is not “should it stop”, but rather “how should it be done?”
WRITERS BIO: Mireille is a travel, music and theater enthusiast. She wrote for the stage and television, and is now working as a freelance blogger for Tourism Montreal.
Thank you Mireille for this intriguing guest post.
Where do you stand on Slum Tourism? We would love to hear your views.