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Who Does Slum Tourism Benefit?

Decrepit neighborhoods have become a magnet for curious visitors, but is the practice as denigrating as some suggest?

ByRachel NuwerNOVA NextNOVA Next
Who Does Slum Tourism Benefit?

Krishna Pujari was ready to go home. It was nearing midnight at the Mumbai restaurant where he was pulling long shifts to put himself through school. Just as he was preparing to clock out for the night, however, a coworker called him back onto the floor. A group of young British men had come in and, as the only English speaker, it fell to Pujari to take their order. “I did it, and then I left, thinking my job is done,” he recalls.

As it turned out, however, his job with the Brits was only beginning. The very next day, a chance encounter on the cricket field reunited Pujari with Chris Way—one of the customers from the night before, who had fallen hard for Mumbai and decided to make the city home. The two immediately hit it off.

Several years and many cricket games later, Way asked Pujari if he’d like to start a small tour company together. The tours, however, wouldn’t be your run-of-the-mill architectural and historical highlights. They would take place in Dharavi, India’s largest slum. One million people live there, crammed into a space half the size of Central Park. The neighborhood notoriously lacks basic services like electricity and plumbing. Just one public toilet exists per 1,444 residents, resulting in 30% of bathroom trips occurring on open land.

“When Chris proposed this idea, I was like, ‘Um…yeah, maybe not,’” says Pujari, who remembered learning as an elementary school student that Dharavi is “Asia’s largest dirty place.” “I was thinking it’s a very poor, very dangerous place where people steal your stuff, and if you go in, you’re never coming out again.”

Dharavi, a massive slum in Mumbai

Way, however, was relentless. To shut his friend up, Pujari agreed to accompany him on a trip to Dharavi, thinking the harsh reality of the place would quickly make the conversation moot. But it was Pujari who was in for the shock.

Walking through tight, muddy alleys, he found bustling districts devoted to various trades: sorting and processing recyclables, embroidering clothing, creating leather, and churning out pottery. Dharavi—which some call a city within a city—hosts 24,000 businesses, 8,000 of which are single-room factories. The slum churns out $655 million annually, making up a full 7% of Mumbai’s economy. It also has its own hospitals, banks, markets, nightclubs and cinemas (a room where, for 16 cents, you can watch Bollywood hits on DVD).

Yes, Dharavi has its share of serious problems—children defecating on the street, incredibly dangerous working conditions, eight-person family homes the size of Western closets, putrid mounds of garbage—but more importantly, Pujari found friendly, hard-working people hailing from all over the country and representing dozens of religious and ethnic backgrounds, all coming together in joint pursuit of a better life. Contrary to expectation, none of the Dharavi residents Pujari encountered hassled or tried to rob him. In fact, they welcomed him. “I was completely surprised,” he says. “I said, ‘Chris, no matter what happens, we have to do this!’”

Children play in a square in Dharavi.

So in 2006, the two friends founded Reality Tours and Travel, offering India’s first slum tours. Now, they take around 18,000 people per year into Dharavi, pumping 80% of the proceeds back into community projects they have set up in the neighborhood. They are so devoted to serving the slum that Pujari’s income from the company isn’t even enough to survive on, and Way takes nothing at all. “I’m so proud of what we’re doing,” Pujari says. “It’s like our child.”

Despite Reality’s popularity and charitable commitments, however, some question the very premise of slum tourism, calling out the ethics of privileged people paying to witness others’ misfortune and suffering. Experts, however, point out that slum tourism, for better or worse, is almost certainly here to stay. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Slum tourism, for better or worse, is almost certainly here to stay.

In South Africa, researchers found that slum tourism is not an exploitative moneymaker imposed by outsiders but one adopted by communities themselves as a way of taking the regeneration of their traditionally neglected neighborhood into their own hands. In Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha favelas, some residents use words like “splendid” and “phenomenal” to describe the influx of tourists into their previously marginalized corner of the city. In central Bangkok, Thai researchers found that residents of a 100-year-old slum used tourism as a means of staving off governmental plans for their eviction. And contrary to the common accusation that slum tours are insensitive and voyeuristic, researchers found that socially responsive and responsible operators seem to be flourishing.

Given these findings, rather than get hung up debating the nature of slum tourism’s existence, researchers argue , we should invest in better understanding the outcomes—both good and bad—of this rapidly growing trend, and finding ways to ensure it serves communities. As Yannan Ding, a lecturer in urban planning at Hefei University of Technology in China, recently argued : “To indulge in an ethics critique may not only be unnecessary, but also distract from community development on the ground.”

Slumming Over the Centuries

Slum tourism has made headlines recently, but it is not at all a new phenomenon. Beginning around 1840, upper class Londoners began venturing into the city’s seedy East End, often under the guise of charity and usually with a police escort in tow. As this practice gained popularity, “slummers” (slum-going visitors) and “slumming” (the act of visiting a slum) became popularly recognized terminology in Victorian society.

By the 1880s, wealthy British tourists eager to compare their slums to those abroad had transplanted slumming to New York City. Travel guidebooks outlined routes through the Bowery and Five Points, and commercial companies—the first slum tour operators—popped up in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. By this time, slum tourism had largely lost its rosy humanitarian glow, catering instead to the wealthy’s desire to see how the other half lived, especially exotic, impoverished immigrant communities.

Slum tourism’s popularity began to wane somewhat around World War II, but in the early 1990s, it reemerged in the political landscape of the South African apartheid . But rather than something introduced by outsiders, black South Africans began offering tours of their townships—racially segregated, impoverished districts they were forced to live in—in an attempt to bring global attention to gross human rights violations occurring there. (Counterintuitively, the apartheid regime itself also began offering township visits as official tourist attractions.)

Touring Soweto, a South African township, by bike

Rio de Janeiro soon followed South Africa’s example, thanks in part to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Thousands of politicians, activists and journalists poured into the city, all with sustainability and global equity on their mind. In preparation for the event, however, the Brazilian government stationed military police at the entrances of the city’s favelas to keep naïve visitors out and poor residents in. But that show of security only made the delegates want to know all the more what was behind the blockades. They began approaching normal tour operators, asking to be taken into Rocinha, the city’s largest favela. From there, favela tours took off, not just in Rio but also in Sao Paulo and Salvador de Bahia.

As current numbers attest, global tourists aren’t just interested in snapping photos at the Gateway of India or sunning themselves at Ipanema. In Mumbai, Reality’s visitor figures have been growing from 15 to 30% annually, and experts estimate that 50,000 people tour Brazil’s favelas each year. In South Africa, township tours are considered must-dos, right alongside safaris and vineyards. Cape Town alone has some 40 or 50 independent township tourism operators, drawing an estimated 800,000 visitors per year.

“It’s something exciting and exotic to do, but there’s also this perspective like, ‘Ok, we’ve been to South Africa and seen the winelands, but that’s not all there is to it,’” says Ko Koens, a lecturer in sustainable hospitality and tourism at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. “Instead of ignoring things like poverty that we normally don’t want to see, visitors want real perspectives.”

On the outskirts of Soweto

Following on the heels of trendsetters in South Africa, Brazil, and India, other operations have begun popping up all over the world, including in Medellin, Colombia; Jakarta, Indonesia; Windhoek, Namibia; Kingston, Jamaica; Cairo, Egypt; Bangkok, Thailand; and Mexico City. Even Neukolln, a neighborhood in Berlin known for high rates of poverty and crime, now has its own walking tours.

In all of these places, slummers most often go slumming by foot or bike rather than bus or car, but tour operators also offer more creative ways to get to know the neighborhoods, including bungee jumping, soccer, paintball, pub-crawls, and overnight stays with families. “Most of the current offerings are not like the human zoo experience that took place around the turn of the century,” Koens says. “Tourists are walking—they’re on the same level as the people around them.”

Growing Pains

Slum tourism’s increasing popularity has only added to its controversy, however. As researchers are well aware , to many critics, the idea of paying to venture into a slum seems at best ridiculous and at worst ethically reprehensible and exploitative. “When I first visited Rio and talked to Brazilian non-favela residents, they were saying things like, ‘Why are you going there? What is there to see?’ ” says Fabian Frenzel, a lecturer in the political economy of organization at the University of Leicester. “The implicit critique was that it’s something not worth looking at, and that the operators are just there to make money.”

That sentiment is largely echoed by the media, which accuses those who partake in such tours of voyeurism. It’s this sentiment that has led to a few of slum tourism’s more colorful nicknames, including “poorism” and “poverty porn.” “Journalists especially tend to quickly come up with speculations about the tourists’ motives, and these presumptions are often the starting point of ethical debates and judgments about slum tourism,” Frenzel, Koens, and co-author Malte Steinbrink write in their book, Slum Tourism : Poverty, Power and Ethics .

But according to Nieck Slikker, a recent graduate of Stenden University in the Netherlands who spent several months researching slum tourism in Dharavi from the community’s perspective, most of those who criticize slum tourism—including journalists, non-slum dwellers and would-be tourists—pass judgment based on their preconceptions rather than first-hand experience. “In Western society, we really have an opinion about slum tourism—we think it’s not ethical,” he says. “But most of the people who have a negative idea about slum tourism are ones who have never gone on a slum tour before.”

Before conducting first-hand research on the topic, Slikker himself found the concept of slum tourism odd, and when he discussed his thesis topic with classmates, they thought he was crazy. Some even told him that slum tourism was “like going to a zoo and viewing animals for your own pleasure.”

“In Western society, we really have an opinion about slum tourism—we think it’s not ethical.”

Slikker, too, had preconceptions. He arrived in Dharavi expecting the 74 residents he interviewed to complain about the foreigners in their neighborhood. But in actuality, he uncovered hardly any negative stories. Instead, people seemed largely indifferent or too busy to even notice the tourists. Others had only positive things to say about the community work Reality did, or the chance to practice their English. The few complaints Slikker received mostly came from female residents: they were unhappy that some of the foreign women wore clothing that exposed their shoulders, knees or chest. “The men start looking at them and we think, ‘Why can’t they dress more like us?’ ” one woman told Slikker. On the other hand, two other women informed him that the clothing issue was a problem at first, but that the situation had since improved.

Overall, though, Slikker’s findings—which have been submitted to the journal Tourism Review International —showed that things seem to be going quite well in Dharavi. Indeed, on a recent tour there, children—oftentimes dressed in a school uniform—enthusiastically exclaimed, “Hello! What is your name?” before moving on. Most adults, glancing up only briefly from their work, gave a smile or a nod. One young man who was sorting plastic recyclables, asked what he thinks of all the tourists, replied, “We like it. It’s exciting to see new people.” Importantly, at no point during the three-hour walk did any residents seem hostile or aggravated.

“If you feel like you’re in danger or threatened, if people are glaring at you or spitting at your feet, that’s a pretty good indicator that slum tourism is not at all going well,” says Graham Miller, head of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Surrey. “But if kids are coming up to you giving high-fives, and people are smiling and letting you by as you pass, then those are all quite good indicators that the company is doing a good job and is well regarded by the community.”

Reality Tours and Travel, like many slum tourism companies, strives to keep residents happy by limiting group sizes, ensuring visitors are dressed appropriately, employing guides from the community, and enforcing a no-camera policy. But not all tour companies maintain such stringent rules; some operations are indeed worst-case ethical cesspools. A 2010 op-ed in the New York Times , for example, describes groups of tourists in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, photographing residents as if they were objects, filming people defecating outside, and even entering the home of a woman in the midst of giving birth. According to the author, a Kibera resident, “Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.” A recent study backed up this assertion, finding that Kibera “has not changed as a result of slum tourism” and that proceeds from the tours almost entirely go to non-residents.

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As slum tourism becomes more widespread, so too does the risk that more tours follow the Kibera model—even if they advertise otherwise. Past examples from other facets of tourism exemplify this problem. As ecotourism began gaining momentum in the 1990s, widespread greenwashing—still present today—began to plague the tourism industry. Companies looking for a quick profit claimed willy-nilly that everything from their golf courses to their laundry services were green. But while planet-loving tourists who choose to opt out of washing their sheets because they think it will save precious resources don’t cause any real harm, with slum tourism the stakes are higher, directly affecting human lives. No certification agency is in place to verify which slum tour operators are responsible and which are in it for the money, however, which leaves tourists to their own devices for determining whether a particular operation is as socially responsible as it claims. But as Koens points out, “It’s very difficult to find out if a company is keeping their promises.”

Indeed, Reality’s success has already sparked copycat tours—some of which are run by disgruntled former employees who were fired for dishonesty. The guides from one competitor company—calling itself Real Slum Tours and Travel—even loiter outside Reality’s office and wear the same shade of light blue shirts as Reality’s guides. “When tourists try to find our office, they intersect them and say ‘Come, come, come—we are Reality!’ It’s crazy,” Pujari says. “Then, the tourists who go with them give us bad feedback on TripAdvisor.”

From Niche to Mainstream

Setting aside the inevitable bad apples, though, the companies that do keep their humanitarian promises can give a much-needed boost to the communities in which they operate. Reality Tours and Travel pumps funds into a school and adult education center managed by their sister nonprofit, Reality Gives . By their count, they’ve reached some 2,500 Dharavi residents this way. “Many of these companies are set up as development charities, but the way they’re choosing to help the community is by running commercial tours,” says Miller, who is currently evaluating Reality Tours and Travel as a finalist for the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Tourism for Tomorrow Awards .

Other operations in Brazil or South Africa fund community centers, day cares or schools, giving back to the residents while also providing tourists with a first-hand look at where their money goes. “According to the little research that’s available on this topic, the social benefits of slum tourism are very much valued by the people living there,” Koens says.

Slum tourism can also give local people pride about their neighborhood, showing them that their home is a destination worthy of attention from people who have traveled a very long way. “We’ve heard from people that they’re excited by the fact that outsiders come to their slum,” Koens says. “They like that people are actually interested and want to talk to them.”

Of course, the lofty argument in favor of slum tourism is that it brings attention to traditionally neglected areas and the problems that occur there—as exemplified by township tours during the apartheid. “You can take a broader view about issues of lack of visibility, of deliberate attempts by the city or local authorities to deny these groups, put them into slums and not give them services,” Frenzel says. “Visibility can be quite interesting politically in that it helps to highlight neglect and ignorance in a local context.”

“We’ve heard from people that they’re excited by the fact that outsiders come to their slum.”

Visibility as a tool for empowerment is a complex issue, however. In Dharavi, journalists on private Reality tours are no longer allowed to photograph visible evidence of problems there, such as the community dump—a massive, multi-colored mound of plastic bags, food scraps and other detritus, which buzzes and pulsates with the busy bodies of a million black flies and releases an inescapable sickly-sweet reek. Several years ago, a photograph of the garbage pile wound up in a newspaper, which, according to the company, offended residents. So although the Reality guides emphasize that the government refuses to take responsibility for the garbage, the company has decided that photography is not an appropriate means of drawing attention to the problem.

Perhaps slum tourism will ignite societal change in some places in the future, but for now, researchers agree, its most obvious positive effects occur on a more modest scale: improving lives and changing minds, one person at a time. Guides as well as local artisans and vendors along tour routes make money, and visitors sometimes give additional donations to the community after the tour. There are also more intangible benefits, academic experts have found. Tourists almost always come away with a different impression about life in the slum than they had before they stepped foot there. According to statistics Reality keeps, 86% of visitors say that Dharavi changed preconceptions about the slum. “These tours break the stereotype that slums are just impoverished places of misery and horribleness,” Koens says. “Yes, it’s dirty, but there’s also a lot of excitement, diversity, life, happiness and joy.”

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Visitors also sometimes become Facebook friends with their guides or the people they meet along the way, offering another indirect perk. “Residents of the slum usually do not have the possibility to travel,” Koens says. “We’ve especially heard from younger people that they think the intercultural exchange with people from different countries is great.”

Realizing all of these benefits largely depends on the individual company and its goals. But as Koeans and other researchers point out, regardless of whether the tours are arranged as exploitative moneymakers or avenues to raise awareness and give back to the community, the fact is that they are not going away. “In the media, we still hear a lot about ‘Should we go into the slums or not?’ ” Koens says. “That’s a very interesting and nice philosophical question, but it’s not very realistic.”

A small bodega inside Soweto

Instead, the more appropriate question might be how can we ensure that slum tourism is done in a respectful way, giving the most possible benefits to the people living there? Just as tourism as a whole brings both positive and negative outcomes to the communities it touches, so, too, will slum tourism bring a mixed bag of pros and cons. Acknowledging and examining both sides of this coin, however, is a necessary first step for tipping the scale toward the positive. “Until we get rid of slums, slum tourism is going to continue gaining popularity and be here for the future,” Miller says. “Which makes it all the more important that we find ways of doing this in a good way.”

Fortunately, this is already underway: the body of research available on slum tourism is steadily growing, and operators from Brazil to the Philippines are beginning to exchange success stories. Could there be room for diversifying in Dharavi, for example, of finding new stories to tell or designing differently themed tours, such as ones focused on food or women’s lives, for example? “Talking more specifically about culture, religion, or other various things could make visitor understanding of places like Dharavi even more sophisticated,” Frenzel says. Diversifying would also encourage tourists to visit the slum on multiple occasions, returning each time for a different experience. Researchers hope a newly created international conference on slum tourism, aimed not just at academics but also tour operators, will help promote the exchange of ideas, including what does and does not work on the ground.

The ultimate goal is that the scientifically vetted data that come of slum tourism studies can be used not only to identify best practice examples in slum tourism, but also to reveal ways to alleviate some of the massive inequalities that allow slums to exist in the first place.

Photo credits: Rachel Nuwer

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