With cities like Mumbai, Johannesburg, and Rio de Janeiro now becoming bonafide tourist attractions, bringing in hundreds and thousands of curious visitors each year, Slum Tourism has also seen a rise in popularity. It takes outsiders through the most impoverished, marginalised districts of the city to get a glimpse of the city’s inequality. 

Filled with hundreds of shanty towns lined by the riverbanks, train tracks, and garbage dumps, “Slumming” has become the key to capturing the attention of the wanderlust, experiential, thrill-seeking traveller. Spending time at a slum through one’s own curiosity or for the charitable purpose of pro-poor tourism, there are benefits and detriments. 

Slum tourism does spark a considerable debate around an uncomfortable moral dilemma. Is the practice in line with privileged people gawking at those less fortunate or do they raise awareness and provide numerous examples of giving back to the local communities? Yet to further look into this travel practice, we need to set out the basics of the same.

Slum Tourism, Poverty Tourism, Ghetto Tourism or Reality Tours Defined:

Slum Tourism also known as Poverty tourism or ghetto tourism is a type of city tourism that involves visiting impoverished areas. Originally focused on the slums and ghettos of London and Manhattan in the 19th Century, Slum tourism is now prominent in South Africa, India, Brazil, Poland, Kenya, Philippines and the United States. Whether called a township, favela, a barrio, a slum, a shantytown, or a ghetto, outsiders recreationally visiting these typically impoverished places is nothing new.  

What began in the mid-80s, ‘Slumming’ was first used in the Oxford English Dictionary, as people in London visited slum neighbourhoods such as Whitechapel or Shoreditch in order to observe life in this situation. In the 1980s, South African communities organised township tours to educate the whites in local governments on how the black population lived. Similarly, in the mid-1990s, international tours were organised with destinations in the most disadvantaged areas of developing nations, thus starting the trend of slum tourism, attracting thousands across the globe.  

Motivated by the ‘out of the ordinary’ experience, tourism is in itself the exploration and experience of the reality of a particular place. Therefore slum tourism actually returns to this practice, it allows the tourists to get a sense of real-life for the poorest communities, creating a path to development and poverty alleviation- funnelling tourists dollars into slums, or installing exploitative practices that enhance the western travellers need to ‘feel good’. 

Reality Check with Slum Tour and Travel.

A study in 2012 by the University of Pennsylvania showed that tourists in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum were motivated primarily by curiosity, as opposed to several competing push factors such as social comparison, entertainment, education, or self-actualization. The study also found that most slum residents were ambivalent about the tour, with interest and intrigue as the most commonly cited feelings. Take Reality Tour and Travel of Mumbai, India. Often ushered by this slum tour operator, tourists get to see a thriving recycling industry which employs around ten thousand people, to melt, reshape, and mould discarded plastic.

Also, followed by dhobi wallahs, or washermen in open-air laundry areas, tourists get to connect with locals for memorable cooking experiences, presenting the residents as productive and hardworking yet content and happy with their lifestyle and socio-economic status. However, Dr, Melissa Nisbett in her study of Slum Tourism found that the concept of poverty to these Dharavi visitors was practically invisible. She added:

“As the reviews show, poverty was ignored, denied, overlooked and romanticized, but moreover, it is depoliticized. The tours decontextualized the plight of the poor and seem only to empower the wrong people- the privileged, western, middle-class visitors”. 

The primary accusation here is that slum tourism takes away the poverty from poverty tours, often turning hardship into entertainment- something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. Yet the tours do provide employment and income for guides from the slum and an opportunity for craft-workers to sell souvenirs, allowing them to re-invest in the community and motivating tourists to help such economies. 

Now Let Us Talk Numbers:

Considered to be one of the world’s largest slum, Dharavi in Mumbai, India is spread over 2.1 square kilometres (520 acres) with a population of somewhere between 700,000 to a million. With an active informal economy in which numerous household enterprises employ many of the slum residents- leather, textiles and pottery products are among the goods made inside Dharavi. The estimated total annual turnover for this informal economy is over USD 1 billion

An estimated 5000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories operate in the area. The per capita income of the residents, depending on estimated population range of 300,000 to about 1 million, ranges somewhere between USD 500 to USD 2000 per year. The slums were also named by travel website TripAdvisor.com as the 2019 top visited experiences in India and also one of the 10 most favourite tourist sites in Asia. 

After being featured in award-winning films like Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and much-appreciated Gully Boy, Dharavi has gained a lot of popularity, growing footfall in the area. Due to lack of data, one cannot determine the actual tread of visitors to the area. However, Reality has reportedly had about 15,000 visitors annually for the year 2016, with an expectation of the same growing further in the next 5 years. 

What About Your Intention? 

However, with tour operators trying to mitigate offence and give back to locals, the impact of slum tourism stays rather isolated. Fabian Frenzel, Author of the definitive book, Slumming It: The Tourist Valorization of Urban Poverty., writes “ In slum tourism, what I find is that people are interested in this fact of inequality”.  Images of these areas create a sense of sentiment that amplifies over time as more and more visuals of the human condition around the world, especially within these slums surface. 

So, instead of consuming these images at home, people are increasingly trying to follow those images back to its origin, in order to “see it themselves” and then try and do something about it. According to the tour operator, the effect of such desire is massive. Take movies based around the areas. Slumdog Millionaire- an oscar winning movie that portrays the journey of two brothers in the slums of Mumbai to riches. Might it be a mere representation of the slums in its entirety, the actual essence of the “slum life” is something that creates this need to rate the place, see the place, feel the desperation of poverty?

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“What you see is life, urban life”, as Frenzel puts it. Even though limited in many ways, might it be the lack of basic sanitation or all basic services of a city, there is a sense of vibrancy that has fantasised poverty. This is where the issue starts. Yes, the intention behind slum tourism itself is diverse in nature, but they all are pushed from a place of empathy, that adds personal value to the visitor rather than the actual settlement. It does help educate us about inequality in the world, but it takes away the poor in poverty by depoliticizing and romanticising life in slums. 

Is there something good that comes from ‘Slumming’. 

Regardless of your intention, slum tourism does open our eyes to inequality. It takes poverty and inequality and commodifies it in the sense of tours educating (might it even be a small group of people) about a global issue. While it might illuminate the issue on a small scale, slum tourism is not a sufficient answer to a growing global problem. 

But as Frenzel puts it “if you want to tell a story, you need an audience, and slum tourism provides that audience”.  

Yes, slum tourism can provide a way to challenge the stigma that represents slum life something dangerous. Take Reality Tours and Travels, for a mere INR 900 per person (USD 12.72), you can get a 2-hour eye-opening tour of ‘one of the largest slums in Asia’ and learn about the very vibrant life of Dharavi and its people. The best part, 80 per cent of the profit goes back into the slum to organise programs and run a community centre that houses many NGOs – including what Reality Tours gives to help better the conditions of the area.

Thus to conclude, what I would like to say is, yes slum tourism has many implications, but what matters is what your intentions are. Are you indulging in pro-poor tours to make yourself feel better? Or is it because you want to be educated about inequality and poverty?

Ask yourself this the next time you or someone you know goes on a slum tour.  

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