The act of visiting impoverished areas and watching inhabitants struggle to make a living can evoke all the worst notions of colonialism and its excesses. So-called ‘slum tourists’ may be interpreted as voyeurs, taking advantage of the misfortune of others. At their worst, slum tours foster a ‘safari’ mentality, under which local residents may be dehumanized, and instances of serious urban poverty reduced to the level of attractions.
Exploitation or Awareness?
In particularly egregious cases, inhabitants of underprivileged areas may be exploited by unscrupulous tour operators, who cycle little to none of the money they make back into the local economy. Given the rising popularity of slum tours, it can be hard to find out which operators genuinely help the local population – and which milk it for profit. Naive (or simply misled) tourists may believe their money creates a positive effect for the local population while, in effect, it never reaches those who need it most. In some cases, the presence of tourists may be actively detrimental to the populace: hand-outs of food, sweets or money encourage begging and undermine legitimate attempts to educate and build in the area.
Despite its sinister side, the benefits of slum tourism shouldn’t be overlooked. While they may be labelled voyeuristic or indulgent, simply witnessing the suffering, inequality and destitution of slum environments is a jarring experience for tourists from the developed world – who may never have experienced anything similar before.
Tours also challenge preconceptions of poverty. Beyond stereotypes of misery, they showcase the innovation, determination and spirit of residents living in difficult conditions. Tours may even inspire visitors to take a pro-active stance – engaging in volunteer work or other charity initiatives to make a real difference to the places and people they visited.
Planning your visit
Preparing for a slum tour should form part of the ethical thought-process. Researching the area, finding a place to stay and checking the backgrounds of tour operators are ways to ensure your visit does not exploit local residents. Slum tours can take place in almost every corner of the earth – from the developed to the developing world. In Brazil, favela tours take visitors through notorious areas of poverty-stricken gangland, while in South Africa, township tours showcase the appalling effects of decades of racial segregation.
India Slum Tours
India, a hotspot for visits to poverty stricken environments, highlights the best and worst of this new tourist trend. The country’s beautiful architecture, sweltering climate and rich history draw thousands of visitors each year – but the sheer scale of poverty in urban and rural environments creates its own grim appeal. Slum tours in India’s most underprivileged areas can be raw and emotional – but explorations of the country shouldn’t neglect it’s more colourful, optimistic and spectacular side – if only as a means of contrasting what the country is capable of.
Finding a balance
A slum tour doesn’t have to be the defining experience of your trip but, if conducted properly – and ethically – should leave a lasting impression. This doesn’t mean you have to hold back on the perks of your larger trip, but does mean you should lend this part of it considerable thought. When it’s time to leave, you should pause to ask yourself: what effect did my visit have?