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Slum Tourism: Beneficial or Exploitative?

Slum Tourism: Beneficial or Exploitative?
Ariana Arghandewal

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.

[Image Source: Shutterstock]

View Comments (7)


  1. BobMiller

    March 22, 2019 at 8:04 am

    well… my wife was born in the Philippines and lived there until her family moved to a western country when she was a child. We have gone there perhaps half-a-dozen times in the last dozen years to visit her family (her parents moved back there after retiring). The Phils pretty much is one big slum. Well, that is not fair. Much of it is rural areas where people live in hovels (watch boxer Pacquiao’s biographical movie and see when he visits his original home in the countryside … for that matter, see the biographical movie about the Filipino who is now the lead singer for US rock band Journey…fyi, he’s been in the group for like 10 years or so now).

    There certainly are “slums” in Manila and other cities. But even the lower-middle class Filipino’s life is not much different. Pretty much all Filipinos are living on the edge, much more so than the typical US citizen.

    Sometimes we “paysal” (tour around) and sometimes that involves going to what I suppose are the more regional slums to visit distant relations. I, a white westerner, don’t really gawk around but I do look and observe. I note that the people have really hard lives. I see some people working so hard. While others are pretty lazy (I can name some, ha).

    Like the author, it is humbling to see the beggars (and everyone, really) hustling for food. And just to make ends meet. Most humbling to me was while on the resort island of Boracai hearing a distant harmonica playing. I looked around and saw a tiny man near my feet (he might’ve stood up and been as tall as my waist). He sat on a board with wheels and his hands were attached at his shoulders…possibly a thalidimide baby. He had a harmonica mounted on his neck Bob Dylan-style and a terry cloth on his shoulder to wipe his brow. No way was this guy a “fake”. I smiled at him and popped a few large bills in his shirt pocket. Even if he’s a rich beggar I had no qualms about giving him a large sum (which to me was probably large Starbucks money).

    What I fear is that the US is going the way of the Philippines with the intense stratification of wealth. There is a class of very rich Filipinos and then there is everyone else …even the “regular” doctors and lawyers do not lead easy lives. It’s coming here too.

    When we travel wife always likes to go to the Chinatowns. Even in SIngapore! We went there and also to “LIttle India”, these are not slums but surely are very very different from what Westerners are accustomed to. But y’know, in the US we have a very glossy view of how we live…we watch TV shows and think that everyone here lives like that (and we all aspire to as well). But probably most people, or at least one-half of the population, does not live in those glitzy houses either. Gosh, I drive through the interior of Florida and it is like a different (poverty-stricken) world. So, no need to go “slum touring” in foreign lands. Slums? we got ’em here! Run-down rural home slums. Trailer park slums. Urban slums.

    Good article!

  2. arcticflier

    March 22, 2019 at 10:26 am

    I love these tours because I feel so much better about myself and my own wealth and quality of life. when I can contrast it against these slums.

    Plus my social media followers say I have sone of the most unique selfies.

    Just like the author mentions there at the end, I always placate my absence of conscience by saying I do this to “raise awareness” of poverty…yesh right.

  3. ConnieDee

    March 22, 2019 at 4:53 pm

    I’ve only been on one slum tour: a respectful tour of a Mumbai slum, conducted by a guide who had grown up and gone to school in that slum and who was being trained by a tour company to work in tourism. Photos were not allowed. Our closely-monitored walkthrough exposed a type of urban environment that I had been completely unaware of. It added another dimension to my understanding of How People Live in different places and under different circumstances. I think it’s important for people who can afford to travel to become aware of the broad range of community, economic endeavor and parental sacrifice that sustain human life around the world.

  4. rightfred

    March 23, 2019 at 12:46 am

    I was pretty horrified to read articflier’s post. Its exactly why I don’t do slum tours. Was this person writing this tongue in cheek or seriously? I hope tongue in cheek

  5. ulxima

    March 25, 2019 at 3:37 am

    Spot on BobMiller, I relate completely to what you wrote. My wife is from Cebu.
    I also suggest what arcticflier wrote, I did it with my Mother while letting her visit one of those places.
    Now she appreciates her comfortable life much more.

  6. kvom

    March 28, 2019 at 4:18 pm

    I did a tour of Soweto about 20 years ago. It was interesting to see how people made do in trying circumstances. There are parts of Soweto that were very middle class, and an entire gamut of living conditions.

    I wouldn’t do such a tour nowadays.

  7. KRSW

    April 11, 2019 at 8:56 am

    For those who live in the US — you’re in luck! You don’t even need a passport. Just go to any of those fine “forward-thinking” cities, such as San Francisco, Seattle, or if you prefer something more historic, Detroit, Baltimore, or even Chicago. All the slums you care to see are waiting for you.

    That said, I’ve seen some of the world’s slums, unintentionally, and it is a humbling experience. I’ve spent time in villages where there is no electricity, not even generators. No running water, no toilets. No mobile phones, no internet (this part I didn’t mind). I’m not kidding when I say I thank God just about every morning for the many luxuries I enjoy. Trying to decide WHAT I’m going to eat for dinner — what a most fortunate problem to have!

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