The image of a group of affluent white tourists with intrusive cameras staring at poor people is reasonable cause to be outraged at “Slum Tourism”. As community engagement and responsible travel become more popular principles, so the slum tourism concept gains strength. This article will describe what this concept is; examine its benefits and pitfalls; and give tips on how to participate in such tours ethically and responsibly.
Slum tourism, as the name suggests, involves visiting impoverished areas or slums in developing countries. The key countries where one would find these tours include India, Brazil, Kenya, Indonesia and South Africa. Although the concept began in London and New York in the late 1800s, it was during the 1980s in South Africa that it started becoming more prominent. Black residents organised “township tours” to educate the white local government officials on how they lived. The tours started to attract international tourists wanting to learn more about apartheid.
Despite these positive intentions, some township or slum tours have devolved into little more than another safari, voyeuristically looking out the bus window at the squalid conditions, turning poverty into entertainment. Watching people struggling for their basic needs does not really help anyone and, it can be argued, it robs those people of their dignity. Tour operators are seen to be essentially exploiting the misfortune of others. Often tour operators do not give back to the community and fail to seek consent from the residents to treat their home like a zoo. It also encourages a hand out society if donations are not controlled – tourists randomly throwing money and sweets out the window teaches children that they don’t need to go to school, rather they can trail after tour buses waiting for the riches to rain down.
But it doesn’t have to be all bad; there are benefits to these tours, both to the communities and the travellers if conducted with the right attitude. Often the tourists wanting to participate in a slum tour are from developed countries and have never seen such destitution. It increases awareness of poverty and issues around poverty, making it a real concern rather than something that happens in a far off land of no concern to them. Many tourists often come to the slums to put their life into perspective (see #firstworldproblems). For travellers, it is a chance to see how people live and how hard they must work to provide for their families. It is also good, however, to see that slums and townships are not just places of destitution and misery, but are actually vibrant communities with shops, schools, laughter, and optimism.
The tours give an opportunity for the local economy to benefit. Travellers can buy lunch, use a local guide and buy souvenirs from craft-workers. Employment and income for these people usually results in their profit being invested back in the community, creating a flow-on benefit. Many slum tours are organised by community-based organisations with the intention of creating jobs and extra income for residents. During a slum tour, travellers can donate directly to those in need (rather than having half their donation lost in “administration costs” when donating to large NGOs at home). There is the opportunity to visit community projects, schools, and other non-profit organisations. Donations can be in the form of money or goods such as stationary for schools or clothes for an orphanage. Many travellers feel more inclined to donate after experiencing a small slice of day-to-day life in the slums.
So if the bad effects are so bad, yet the good effects are so good, how does one decide whether to participate in a slum tour or not? Here are three key things to look for in choosing your slum tour:
- Are local guides being employed?
- Does the money you pay for the tour go back into the community?
- Does the operator genuinely support the community?
You should ask plenty of questions of your tour operator to ensure they are ethical and responsible in their conduct of slum tours. A few considerations you should ask about include:
- The size of the tour group – a big group is very intrusive and there is no way you can have proper interaction with community members while small groups can interact respectfully with residents.
- Is it a walking tour or will you be travelling in a bus, just clicking your camera from the window?
- How much is the community involved in working with the tour company?
The Boston’s University’s paper on “poverty tourism” says that slum tours should be conducted in” a well-established collaborative and consensual process”, much like the “fair trade” process.
Sharing the challenges, dreams and aspirations of communities provides the opportunity of getting connected with our global village. Participating in slum tours need not be a voyeuristic exploitative process, but can be a mutually beneficial relationship between visitors and residents. The opportunities to connect to further the relationships for capacity development or simply facilitating donations are aided by the direct interaction slum tours can provide. It is just important to ensure you use ethical, responsible tour operators who work with communities rather than just use them for their own gains.