Updated 4 August 2017 — Let me begin by saying I have engaged in slum tourism.
I took a Soweto tour during a long-ago visit to South Africa, to see a place that overflowed with meaning. In 1976, during the Soweto Uprising in which unarmed students were stormed and killed by police for refusing to study in Afrikaans, I was a university student in Political Science, engulfed (at a distance) in liberation movements and revolutions. Soweto was part of that, as well as a major chapter in the bigger South African story of apartheid and discrimination.
It was a place I wanted to see, but the then boycott of South Africa was in full swing and I would have to wait nearly two decades.
Years later as a journalist, I was escorted through some of Rio's most crowded favelas by a young community nurse who worked with drug addicts and knew everyone. He was respected and we were stopped on every corner for a bit of a chat.
The afternoon I spent in Rocinha gave me a slightly better understanding of the poverty that fuels much of the addiction and crime, something I certainly would not have learned from the back of a bus.
It also showed me a side that surprised me - the regular everyday life of people less fortunate than myself. The streets were dirty and the housing rickety but people came and went, shopped, talked, laughed - and went to work, determined to make things better.
Oddly enough, at least to me, not everyone was poor. Some dwellings were decidedly middle-class, because here as everywhere else, when people succeed they don't necessarily want to leave their friends and family.
Over the years, visits to poorer urban areas have left me unsettled. Children sniffing glue under a bridge in Brasilia. Mothers scavenging on the world's biggest scrap heap in Manila. Begging for food near a Nairobi slum. Homeless children in Malawi. These are scenes that drive home the accident of humanity, of where I happened to be born, of my race and privilege, and how easily it might have been otherwise.
Slum tourism has been around since Victorian times, when wealthy Londoners trudged down to the East End for a view. The end of apartheid in South Africa fueled a more politically-oriented type of 'township tour' while Rocinha has been receiving tourists for years - some 50,000 a year now.
In India, the release of the movie Slumdog Millionnaire created space for even more slum tours. In Nairobi, enterprising Kenyans are guiding tourists around Kibera, a sprawling slum of one million inhabitants (to which the government is about to give a facelift, by the way).
The voyeur aspect of slum tourism makes me intensely uneasy.
Imagine a busload of foreign visitors traipsing down your street, peering into your house, take a selfie in front of your door... Yet that's exactly what happens on some slum tours... or poverty safaris... or pity tours... or whatever you choose to call them.
So is slum tourism ethically acceptable or is it exploitative? Do our tourist dollars actually help these communities or are we simply paying for a peek into lives we have no intention of ever experiencing for more than a few minutes?
Organized slum visits have come under harsh criticism, particularly as they become more popular. Much of the criticism has been along these lines:
How true is this picture?
There's a flip side. Slum tourism has supporters, many of whom believe tourism will ultimately benefit the favela or the township and help improve the lives of people who live there. Visitors who take these tours may genuinely care and are interested in knowing more about the people they meet and the places they see.
Here are some of the potential advantages of slum tourism:
There is no such thing as a star system for slum tours, an ethical rating that will tell you how well an operator is performing or if a tour benefits the community. So, it's up to us to find out before booking.
Here are some of the things we should look for:
Granted, much of this information will not be easy to find, especially before you book. But by asking the right questions, you are showing you care, and are forcing tour operators to tackle these issues. Once you're on the tour, you'll have a better sense of its ethics and if you don't like what you see, there's always social media. If a tour is exploitative - well, word gets around fast.
There are many signs slum tourism is changing. More charities are being set up to spread profits around, local people are becoming increasingly involved, negative stereotypes are being challenged, local artisans are being encouraged to sell their work to tourists at fair prices, and tour operators themselves are beginning to understand that slum tourism is not like mass tourism: they don't have to cram every possible attraction into the shortest possible time.
While some feel much good can come from properly thought-out slum tours, others believe slum tourism has done more harm than good, with insensitive itineraries pulled together purely for gain.
So which is it: Would visitors be better off staying in a luxury downtown hotel while pretending not to see the slum next door? Or is knowledge and awareness the first step towards understanding?
For more information on slum tourism these resources may help:
Slum Dwellers International is a is a network of community-based organizations of the urban poor in 33 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Tourism Concern works towards ethical tourism at all levels, everywhere.
Slumtourism.net brings together academics and practitioners working on tourism in slums and poor rural areas.
The world's five largest slums.
I'd love to hear your thoughts about slum tourism - please do add your comments to those below!