A New York Times article published on 9 March on the questions of slum tourism has been generating hundreds of comments on the paper’s website, and has been picked up by many bloggers and news sites. While slum tourism is now offered in an increasing number of places around the world, from Rio de Janeiro to Johannesburg to Mumbai, the concept arouses strong opinions among both tourism and development experts, and the general public. Some see it as voyeurism of the worst kind, as rich Westerners view people living in poverty, as if they were animals in a zoo, before returning to their air-conditioned hotels. Others see it as generating valuable insight into how others live, and encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurship among the residents of the township and favelas.
Some of these conflicting opinions are presented in the NY Times article. “Would you want people stopping outside of your front door every day, or maybe twice a day, snapping a few pictures of you and making some observations about your lifestyle?” asked David Fennell, a professor of tourism and environment at Brock University in Ontario, and author of two books on tourism ethics. Slum tourism, he says, is just another example of tourism’s finding a new niche to exploit. The real purpose, he believes, is to make Westerners feel better about their station in life. “It affirms in my mind how lucky I am — or how unlucky they are,” he said.
Not so fast, proponents of slum tourism say. Ignoring poverty won’t make it go away. “Tourism is one of the few ways that you or I are ever going to understand what poverty means,” said Harold Goodwin, director of the International Center for Responsible Tourism in Leeds, England. “To just kind of turn a blind eye and pretend the poverty doesn’t exist seems to me a very denial of our humanity.”
The crucial question, Mr. Goodwin and other experts say, is not whether slum tours should exist but how they are conducted. Do they limit the excursions to small groups, interacting respectfully with residents, maybe even using slum-dwellers as guides? Or do they travel in buses, snapping photos from the windows as if on safari?
In modern times, slum tourism first became known in Brazil. Marcelo Armstrong is the pioneer of tours in favelas in Rio, beginning in 1987 and running a company called Favela Tour. The company website says that the ‘ tour is not only to explain about favelas, but to give you a whole new understanding about different aspects of Brazilian society…..the tour changes their reputation of areas related to violence and poverty only’.
The Favela Tourism Workshop takes the approach of using local children as guides in their tours of the Rio de Janeiro favelas. A set of FAQs on the company website asks the question ‘Isn′t showing the slums and poorer areas degrading?’ and states that the ‘primary purpose is to dispel a myth that Rocinha is simply a place of drug dealers and extreme poverty’. Like on a number of other such tours around the world, opportunities to buy locally handcrafted goods are seen as ways to encourage locals to make a living from making and selling goods.
In Kenya, a company called Victoria Safaris offers not just the usual short tours of deprived areas, but multi-day trips visiting a number of Nairobi slums and shanty towns. A Reuters article from 9 February 2007 highlights the controversy such tours have created. A visit from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — coming hard on the heels of other foreign celebrities including even U.S. comedian Chris Rock — drew a stern editorial from Kenya’s leading newspaper.
"What is this fascination with Kibera among people who do not know what real poverty means?" asked the Daily Nation.
"More to the point, how do Kenyans themselves feel about this back-handed compliment as the custodians of backwardness, filth, misery and absolute deprivation?"
Salim Mohamed, project director for the Carolina for Kibera charity, said the stream of high-profile visits to the 3 km-long (1.8 mile) corridor was raising expectations among residents which, when not quickly fulfilled, fuelled frustration with the appalling living conditions.
Victoria Safaris’ manager Asudi, from the same Luo tribe which constitutes the majority of Kibera residents, insists the tour he offers of Kibera and other slums in Nairobi and Kisumu in west Kenya, are beneficial to locals.
They raise awareness, and he hands his tourists back a percentage of their payment to donate to a cause they have seen on their walkabout, he says, such as a health or school project.
CABI editor Marion Doy, who visited a township near Knyasa, South Africa, said that while she had been worried that the visit would be exploitative, having been on the tour she felt it worthwhile, not least for changing her own attitudes. Far from resenting visitors, some locals were very proud to show how they had managed to improve their standards of living, and the guide showed how locals had created small businesses to improve their livelihoods. The tour, as the companies that conduct them claim, was not so much about displaying poverty but by showing how people combat it and create their own opportunities.
As well as the New York Times article, lengthy discussions of the pros and cons of slum tourism have been carried by the Sydney Morning Herald (22 July 2007) and the UK’s Observer newspaper (May 7, 2006). The website of Indian company Reality Tours and Travel carries both positive and negative coverage of their slum tours from the press and blogs on this page.