Zooming Out

Poverty Porn: How to Unsubscribe from Slum Tourism

By Abigail Mengesha

Tired of your generic island destinations? Monthly visits to museums and art exhibits? Well, the tourism industry has a solution for you: slum tourism. It’s no secret that the world is abundant with inequality, so why not include it in your plans this summer? After all, it’s something completely different, maybe even trendy. So, why not go for it? Well, there are multiple reasons as to why you should do some research before booking that ticket to Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, or any other third world city.

In the most reductive understanding, slum tourism is a form of sightseeing that involves visiting impoverished urban areas.  It has been around for decades, but it started when well-off Londoners headed over to surrounding slums to ogle the poor. It became a formal commercial offering once tourists began venturing into the Lower East Side of Manhattan and more recently, began traveling to Johannesburg to observe the places where the anti-apartheid movement first started. Since its founding, the sector has been grounded in the inequality gap between the rich and the poor. As the world’s population grew and as capitalism’s influence around the world increased, so did the popularity of slum tourism.

Tourists Final- Leo Levy.jpg
Art by Leo Levy

Yet, a good deal of people argue in defense of slum tourism since it builds awareness and empathy. Instead of ignoring poverty, privileged people actively seek to experience real perspectives as a result of this movement. For instance, when Krishna Pujari and Chris Way began Mumbai’s Reality Tours and Travel to organize tours in Dharavi, they were trying to challenge the bias linked to slums. The tours aspired to show the positive side of the slum: its numerous small businesses and the inhabitants’ rigorous work ethic. At the same time, the company strived to make the tours ethical: enforcing a no-camera policy, limiting group sizes, employing guides from the inhabitants, and ensuring visitors are dressed appropriately. Besides, according to BBC, the company donates 80% of its profits to its sister company, a charity called Reality Gives. As a result, it appears that tourists are not exploiting the area since most of the money they spend on the tours are being sent back to the slums.

Moreover, certain intellectuals argue that slum tourism is not an exploitative goldmine executed by foreigners but one adopted by the districts as a way of tackling insignificance, disabling regional taboo, and empowering the urban poor amidst the absence of action from governments and the failure of urban policies. For instance in Bangkok, a slum’s inhabitants used tourism as a shield against the government’s eviction plan. Contrary to popular belief, slum tourism appears to be an empowering affair.

So, what’s the problem?

As much as companies like Reality Tours and Travel have ethical integrity and strive to do “the right thing,” they don’t provide real means to alleviate the immense inequalities that produce slums. Even if the majority of their profits are sent to charities, slum inhabitants from around the world complain about the lack of any real change in their communities. Slums are settlements, neighborhoods, or city districts that cannot provide the basic living conditions necessary for their populations. They are the result of rapid urbanization within a developing country. As more people from rural parts of the country migrate to cities, their demands for housing don’t match the city’s supply. As a result, migrants are forced to construct informal settlements on any open land. The formation of slums reveals that there can never be a surface solution. Even though Reality Gives, Reality Tours and Travel’s sister company, strives to provide equal access to opportunities to the youth hailing from Dharavi’s folds, it doesn’t provide any preventative solution. In a way, the process becomes a temporary fix for the growing problem. As long as governments don’t take action and implement productive urban policies, urban migration decreases, and the economy of the overall country improves, the problems of slums shall persist and nullify charities’ and individuals’ good contributions. So for each “saved” community member, there will be an urban migrant taking their place, maintaining the slum’s existence.

Additionally, another fact contradicts the empowering benefits of slum tourism: most companies are jump-started by Western foreigners instead of community members. Reality Tours and Travels was brainstormed by Chris Way, a British man, while a slum tourism company in Nairobi was devised by a Dutch aid worker. Admittedly, they have native partners that understand the ins and outs of the slums, which result in the success of the firms, but why wouldn’t the city’s inhabitants themselves design these tour companies if slum tourism was going to truly benefit their city? Their people? This is because slum tourism mainly empowers the empowered. When taking a gap year, when spiritually frustrated and/or emotionally trapped, Westerners travel to third-world countries for emotional enrichment. Through the window provided by slum tourism, these tourists view the “authentic” form of life presented by the tour companies. The tours are based on just observing the inhabitants so they don’t provide any insight on the structuralism of poverty. Hence, they either provide a romanticized version—where people are perceived to be hardworking and optimistic despite their hardship—or a voyeuristic version—where people are reduced to pitiful and overworked animals. In both cases, tourists feel better about themselves and the world. In the romanticized version, they get inspired by the inhabitants’ optimism, while in the voyeuristic version, they get self-satisfaction from empathically responding to the sufferers. Yet, in both cases, the slums’ inhabitants don’t benefit.

Furthermore, not all tourism companies are ethically sensitive. In Nairobi, small organizations allow tourists to take pictures when they tour the city’s biggest slum, Kibera. This results in a contemporary human zoo that gains income from poverty voyeurism. Wealthy tourists usually target children and working women with their cameras either to romanticize or exaggerate the whole experience. Furthermore, they could sell these pictures to make a profit, while benefiting none of the slum inhabitants. In this case, slum tourism becomes a factor contributing to the commercialization of poverty. The sector becomes the market, the companies develop into the suppliers, and the tourists convert to consumers, while the inhabitants and their poverty are lessened to commodities.

So, what can be done?

Currently, the expansion of slums and the popularity of slum tourism are on a steady rise and won’t go away anytime soon. Consequently, calling for the complete obliteration of the industry becomes unrealistic and rash. Instead, governments and companies should work together to make this sector of tourism socially mindful. Corresponding government officials should draft and implement slum improvement plans while making strides against high urban migration, unequal distribution of public resources, and the lack of investment in local businesses. The policies should also cover, but shouldn’t be restricted to tour company guidelines and educational requirements.

At the same time, tour companies should brainstorm and carry out hands-on campaigns and programs that come as a package deal with the tours. Instead of throwing money at a non-profit organization, these ventures truly benefit the community while giving tourists a well-rounded and realistic experience of the slums. The programs could include but not be limited to educational campaigns that help the slums’ micro-markets, political movements that challenge and demand the government to invest in the areas, and volunteering programs that are concerned with youth mentorship.

By implementing such policies, governments and tour companies can steer slum tourism towards a more socially conscious direction. Instead of remaining an industry that empowers the empowered, slum tourism can eventually benefit the communities as much as it benefits the tourists. Therefore, it can shed away its voyeuristic and commercializing shell and reveal a new form, one that does not cash-crop on poverty and promote the vicious commodification of poor people. Once this is achieved, slum tourism can ironically be a tool that eliminates its very own profit generators: the slums.

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