There was a time when tourists stuck to the “safe” areas of a city. Places that were clean, low on crime, and generally comfortable for people used to a higher standard of living. With the advent of slum tourism, all of that is possible with some degree of ensured safety. Whether it’s the slums of Mumbai, an inmate-run prison in Bolivia or a favela in Brazil, you can see first hand what life is like for some of the most impoverished people in the world. But should you? Is slum tourism exploitative or beneficial to poor communities?
Originating in England during the 1800’s, slum tourism has become especially prevalent about a decade ago, it was targeted to the adventure traveler. People who like to travel off the beaten path and immerse themselves with “locals” – to see a side of the city that isn’t always visible to tourists. Slum tourism was also initially lauded as a great learning experience for tourists and financially beneficial to the communities they visited. Some argue that bringing tourist traffic to impoverished communities can have a positive social and economic impact on the people that reside there.
That isn’t the case when the tours are given by people outside of the community who aren’t as knowledgable about its history. These tour guides can actually cause damage by reinforcing negative stereotypes, spreading misinformation, and keeping the economic impact (mainly the revenue generated from running the tours) outside of the community. That kind of exploitative approach is antithetical to effective tourism. So if you’re going to book a slum tour, consider choosing a company that hires residents of these impoverished communities and contributes some percentage of profits to community programs.
I do think “slum tourism” carries a lot of negative connotations in today’s slightly more enlightened world (I wrote that with a straight face). It’s all about how these tours are approached. I think it’s terrible to go to impoverished neighborhoods and photograph the residents, insult and disrespect their environment, and turn the entire learning experience into a selfie opportunity. However, if you’re going someplace with the intention to learn and maybe even give back to people, that’s great for everyone.
Most of us can’t imagine abject poverty. Sure we’ve all seen commercial showing malnourished children in poverty-riddled areas of the world. Seeing it in person is different. Having traveled to Afghanistan and seen beggars in the streets with missing limbs, meeting people from my home village who didn’t have access to food on a regular basis was unnerving. To this day, if I find myself getting too comfortable in my circumstances or thinking too much about material things, I always think back to that experience and it straightens me right up. You don’t get that kind of a feeling by just watching TV or reading a newspaper article. “Slum tourism,” as it’s so unfortunately called, can be beneficial if you approach it respectfully and with a positive intent. But those who go there for the selfies or “adventure” without any intention of spreading awareness to the conditions of slums or helping in any means will do these communities a favor by staying out of the way.
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