Slum tourism, also sometimes referred to as "ghetto tourism," involves tourism to impoverished areas, particularly in India, Brazil, Kenya, and Indonesia. The purpose of slum tourism is to provide tourists the opportunity to see the “non-touristy” areas of a country or city.
While slum tourism has gained some international notoriety in recent years, it is not a new concept. In the mid-1800s, rich Londoners would travel to the squalid tenements of the East End. Early visits began under the guise of “charity,” but over the next few decades, the practice spread to the tenements of U.S. cities like New York and Chicago. With demand, tour operators developed guides to tour these impoverished neighborhoods.
Slum tourism, or seeing how the other half lived, died off in the mid-1900s, but regained popularity in South Africa due to apartheid. This tourism, though, was driven by the oppressed black South Africans who wanted the world to understand their plight. The success of the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" brought India’s poverty to the world’s attention and slum tourism expanded to cities like Dharavi, home to India’s largest slum.
Modern tourists want an authentic experience, not the white-washed tourist zones that were so popular in the 1980s. Slum tourism meets this desire, offering a look into the world beyond their personal experience.
Like it is in all areas of tourism, slum tourism can be safe, or not. When choosing a slum tour, guests should use due diligence to determine if a tour is licensed, has a good reputation on review sites and follows local guidelines.
For instance, Reality Tours and Travel, which was featured on PBS, takes 18,000 people on tours of Dharavi, India each year. The tours highlight the slum’s positives, such as its infrastructure of hospitals, banks and entertainment, and its negatives, such as the lack of housing space and bathrooms and mounds of garbage. The tour shows guests that not everyone has a middle-class home, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a vibrant life. Further, 80% of proceeds from the tours are pumped back into community improvement projects.
Unfortunately, other companies, taking on similar names and logos, offer “tours” that don’t showcase the positives and negatives but exploit the community. They don’t pump funds back into the community, either.
Because there is no standard for slum tour operators yet, tourists need to determine for themselves whether a particular tour company is acting as ethically and responsibly as it claims.
Brazil’s favelas, slum areas that are typically located on the outskirts of big cities like São Paulo, draw 50,000 tourists each year. Rio de Janeiro has by far the most slum tours of any city in Brazil. Slum tourism of Brazil’s favelas is encouraged by the federal government. Tours provide an opportunity to understand that these hill communities are vibrant communities, not just drug-infested slums portrayed in movies. Trained tour guides drive tourists to the favela by van and then offer walking tours to highlight local entertainment, community centers, and even a meet with people who live there. Generally, photography is prohibited on slum tours preserving respect for the people who live there.
The government goals for touring favelas include:
- explaining the economy of a favela (employment, welfare, rental markets and more)
- highlighting the infrastructure of the favela (hospitals, shopping, banking, fashion, and entertainment)
- touring schools and community centers
- touring community projects
- interacting with the citizens and visits to their homes
- enjoying a meal at a local restaurant
While Brazil has carefully structured its program for slum tourism, concerns remain. Despite regulations and guidelines, some tourists take photos and share them on social media. Whether for shock value or in an effort to enlighten the world to the plight of people in slums, these photos can do more harm than good. Some tour operators, likewise, exploit tourists, claiming that their tours support local businesses without actually giving back to the community. Perhaps the greatest concern, though, is that when slum tourism goes wrong, real lives are impacted.
Responsible slum tourism depends on government guidelines, ethical tour operators, and considerate tourists. When these come together, tourists can have safe travel experiences, gain a wider worldview and communities can benefit.