Are slum tours doing more harm than good?

by Rachel Jackson

Last year, I spent several months working in an NGO in Peru. Before travelling home, I decided to take a trip to Brazil and spend a week in Rio de Janeiro. Sat in the hostel social area, I picked up the booklet containing all the various tourism activities available. Flicking through with my dorm buddies, we excitedly created a chorus of ‘Let’s do this!’ and ‘That sounds amazing!’ Then I arrived at the page: ‘Rocinha favela tour.’ I fell silent, whilst those around me expressed their desire to go. I said I wouldn’t go, that it made me uncomfortable, that I didn’t fly 13 hours to tour someone’s poverty. But my friends protested, claiming that a favela tour is a ‘true’ cultural experience and would benefit those receiving the tourism. This created a debate, which resulted in my spending the following day alone whilst my friends toured the favelas. That was the first time I became aware of slum tourism.

The concept of slum tourism is not a new phenomenon, and can be traced back to reality tours of the 20th century. On such trips, participants would join in consciousness raising tours which looked to improve relations between the US and Cuba. However, in more recent years such tours have become commercialised and have lost the educational aspect. Now such tours are predominantly made up of tourists (often westerners from the Global North) paying for a tour of an impoverished area. Whether called a slum, a favela, barrio, township or ghetto, outsiders seem to revel in the opportunity to experience true, ‘authentic’ poverty. It is a lucrative industry, with over one million people participating in such tours every year. And this industry seems to be correlated with the effects of depictions of slums in popular culture. After the release of the film Slumdog Millionaire, tours to the Mumbai slum of Dhavari increased massively, with fans eager to see whether the film was a genuine depiction of the slums or not.

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photo by João Ritter on Unsplash

The emergence of slum tourism has led to an international debate concerning its exploitative nature and capitalist venture. The issues raised in favour by my peers were genuine points, not just by them but also from the tourism agencies offering such tours. It is often expressed when in discussion that yes, it is sad that people live in such conditions, but the issue doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, so why shouldn’t we provide an alternative way for those in the slums to make money? This is the way that capitalism works now: regardless of the ethics involved, and one should jump at any chance to make money when living in squalor. But really, how much of the £30 you paid to go into the favela is actually going towards those inhabiting it? After travel agency fees, travel fares, security and local guide fees; how much are those whose living rooms you’re poking your nose intoactually receive? Most likely, it is isn’t much, but tour operators will continue to make a comfortable profit off someone else’s poverty. Some tour companies offer incentives to participants to make them feel more at ease with the ethics of it all, promoting things like ‘80% of our profits goes back into local NGOs’. Whilst this is certainly an improvement, the cynic in me doubts the legitimacy of it, and whether it would be better to just donate directly to the NGO, insteadof first contributing to an exploitative business.

I was particularly shocked by the argument that it provides a ‘true’ cultural experience. Often, western tourists hold the stereotypical view that those living in poverty in the Global South live in squalid conditions, without technology and still performing traditional rituals. When touring Rocinha, tourists are taken into a local church where they experience a ‘traditional’ dance and are dressed in cultural clothing. Such activities reinforce archaic views about tradition and modernity. The alternate image, so clear in my mind, is of those performing waiting for the tourists to leave before putting their Adidas tracksuits back on and checking Instagram before the next performance. The tourists will go away content, believing they now have a stronger understanding of the cultures of favelas, feeling extra grateful for their possessions and comfy bed at night. Yet the videos and images they share of their tour are damaging, reinforcing dangerous stereotypes about those in poverty to the outside world and sharing a negative view about the country in question. They genuinely do not believe that they have just participated in an exploitative activity, but rather are considering themselves as travellers who see the ‘true’ side of a country.

It frustrates me that tourists will jump at the chance to visit slums and favelas when travelling, but when questioned, would never tour former mining villages in the north of England, or the refugee camps in Europe. Perhaps it is more comfortable to tour poverty which is a far-removed reality, that feels exotic and unthreatening. Or perhaps people travel far and wide to explore poverty, because they don’t want to be reminded of how close it truly is to you in your own hometown. One only has to walk to your local high street to see that. Thus, an unconscious line has been created, demarcating which form of poverty is acceptable to tour and which isn’t. A result of capitalism and exploitative practices, it appears such tours will continue to be an activity, and those running them will continue to profit.

On an end note, I do want to acknowledge that there are those who genuinely wish to assist those living in such conditions and choose these tours as a means of supporting them. My advice would be to do research and find alternative ways to support that don’t include being implicit in the damaging industry that is slum tourism. Instead, reach out and support local NGOs and charities where the aid will reach further. Researching NGOs will also provide information about the deeper reasons behind the creation of such poverty, which might even shock you into making bigger changes in your life. If you are shocked by the poverty in the slums of India, boycott the clothing companies whose sweatshops employ the slum’s inhabitants with unsustainable living wages and exploitative practices. If you are shocked by the poverty in the Rio de Janeiro favelas, speak out against the police violence and discriminatory policies that force people to the city outskirts. There exist many methods of supporting those in poverty other than taking a tour of their kitchen, and while they might require much more effort than popping onto a tour bus, the impact will be considerably greater.

Rachel Jackson is a student on the MA in Social Development at the University of Sussex. She previously studied BA (Hons) Hispanic Studies at The University of Liverpool, followed by a year working in South America with various NGOs.


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