Voyeurism or empowerment: Is it ethical to visit the world’s poorest slums?

Happyland slum in Manila, Philippines. Source: Shutterstock

FOR many people, the concept of slum tourism is an insulting and jarring juxtaposition. For others, it’s a tool for awareness that empowers the local community. It’s undoubtedly a sticky issue that continues to fuel debate. So can it ever be an ethical activity that should appear in your travel itinerary? Or is touring the favelas nothing more than poverty porn?   

The idea of “slum tourism” is not a new one. It dates back as far as the late 1800s when wealthy Londoners used to head down to the East End to gawp at the impoverished lower classes.

From early beginnings, it has grown to a thriving business, that now sees over a million tourists per year enter slums the world over; from Mumbai to Rio, Manila to Johannesburg. And yet it is still a highly debated issue that continues to divide.

People tend to fall firmly on either side of the argument as to whether touring around the world’s poorest communities is empowering or just downright patronizing.

But it’s not always clear cut, and the end result can have a lot to do with how you approach it.

“In general, we see two main drivers for people to participate in slum tourism,” senior lecturer at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences, Ko Koens told Travel Wire Asia. “The first one is that tourists want to get a more ‘complete’ picture of a destination.”

These tourists, Koens says, believe the economically poor areas of a country shouldn’t be ignored just because they don’t fit the aesthetics of what tourism “should” be. They feel if you are to truly experience a country, it should be the whole country, warts and all.

The other driver is much less noble – namely that it is exciting!

“People increasingly look for new types of destinations, and slum tourism certainly is different from your average attraction. The presumed element of danger can make this even more exciting, even when the tours and the areas they visit are perfectly safe,” Koens adds.

In the past, many articles have hit upon this voyeuristic side of the slum tourism argument. The notion that such tours are insulting to the people who live in these deprived areas and, in essence, treat them like animals in a zoo.

One op-ed by Kennedy Odede from Nairobi, which appeared in the New York Times back in 2010, gave a harrowing insight into his first-hand experiences of having western tourists come to his home.

He wrote:

“I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.”

“Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.”

Such accounts are not uncommon and can have a powerful impact on those considering such a tour. But, while these negative encounters do occur, they are not everyone’s experience, and with responsible management, they may be avoidable entirely.

“Whether or not it is an ethical practice really depends on how it is done,” says Koens, a leading researcher in the field and author of Slum Tourism: Poverty, Power and Ethics.

“There are various things that operators can do. It is important that they try to understand the slums before they set up their tours, to ensure tourism is wanted and appreciated by locals. They can work with people from the slums to deliver the tours, and ensure tourists spend money at local attractions.”

Koens also suggests including an element of engaging with residents, enabling them to tell their story in their own words and to implement an active photography policy in which visitors must ask permission before taking a photo.

Experience shows that when these rules are followed, there can be significant benefits to slum tourism.

“Our main motivation is to take care of the community,” Reality Tours and Travel General Manager Asim Shaikh told Travel Wire Asia. “We have a sister organisation that we give 80 percent of the profits. This is used for quality education for the youth in the community.”

Reality Tours have been running tours around Dharavi in Mumbai for 11 years and want to make slum tourism about more than just seeing how the other half live.

Using local guides, Asim says they want tourists to understand the life of people in the community and show them a different side to slum living that is so often misrepresented in the media.

“We are trying to change people’s perspective. We are trying to show them what hard working people live in the slum. They are poor, yes, but there is a strong sense of community and they are working hard.”

The Reality project also has schools staffed by local women the company has trained up to teach the young children in the slums. Without the support and training made possible by the profits from the tours, Asim said most of these women would be housewives with no income of their own.

As for local opinion? “It’s positive,” says Asim.

The company has had surveys conducted asking the locals how they feel about the tours and the way they are being operated.

“The main thing is, if the people are happy, we are happy.”

The benefits from responsibly operated tours such as Reality are evident. But not everyone is as scrupulous and there can be risks involved when choosing an operator.

As these tours commonly take place in areas where there are few economic opportunities, the competition can be cut-throat often leading to unethical business practices.

But don’t let that put you off. With a little research beforehand, you can quickly determine if the company has the right intentions and, according to Koens, when done properly, slum tourism “really can give a voice and income to people who have been ignored by society at large.”