Slumming It: Can Slum Tourism Be Done Right?

Eric Weiner: Global Positioning: On the intersection of place, politics and culture

03.16.09 | 11:57 AM ET

Dharavi, MumbaiDharavi, Mumbai. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe

The global, meteoric success of “Slumdog Millionaire” has, among other things, shined a bright, Hollywood spotlight on slum tourism—or “poorism”—one of the more controversial corners of the travel universe. The tours, which I wrote about in The New York Times last year, were gaining popularity even before “Slumdog” caught the world’s attention. Now, they are red-hot.

Chris Way, founder of Reality Tours and Travel in Mumbai, says business is up 25 percent since the film’s release. Way and his Indian business partner lead groups of (mostly Western) tourists through the labyrinth alleyways of the Dharavi slum, Asia’s largest. There are similar tours of Rio’s favelas (where slum tourism first took root 17 years ago), South Africa’s townships and the garbage dumps of Mazatlan, Mexico.

Few topics in the world of travel engender such heated reaction as slum tourism. To proponents, the slum tours provide a valuable window into the lives of the poorest of the poor and help funnel tourist dollars into the slums. To critics, the tours represent the worst kind of travel voyeurism, degrading and utterly without redeeming qualities.

So which is it? Detestable voyeurism or cross-cultural eye-opener?

The latter, I say, but only if the tours are conducted properly. That’s a big caveat, I realize, so let me elaborate. Here are my criteria for sound, responsible slum tourism:

I realize these suggestions won’t satisfy all of slum tourism’s critics. If you care so much about the worlds’ poor, these critics say, just write a check. You don’t need to traipse through the slums of Mumbai to know that there are poor people in the world. True, yet there is a huge difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it viscerally. Smelling the poverty, tasting it firsthand, is much more likely to stir our hearts—and, hopefully, compel us to write that check or volunteer our time.

The fact is that the controversy over slum tourism says more about tourism than it does about slums. Modern mass tourism is considered entertainment, and, of course, we find the thought of slums as entertainment repulsive. Yet all travel is, to some extent, voyeuristic. Necessarily, we pry into the lives of others. Travel is intrusive and, really, there is no such thing as a no-impact traveler (save the armchair variety).

Besides, are celebrity tours of Beverly Hills any less voyeuristic than slum tours of Mumbai?
I realize the difference is one of wealth and power. The Hollywood celebrities have both, the slum dwellers neither. But the concept, the motivation, is the same. To peel off the veil of a world alien to us.

One of the biggest benefits of slum tourism is that it humanizes slum dwellers. I’ve spoken with many slum tourists, and the most common response is one of surprise that slums are not unremitting misery incarnate. There is life inside these walls, joy even. Slum dwellers do everything the rest of us do—brush their teeth, watch TV, go to work, bathe. They just do so more publicly, and less comfortably, than the rest of us.

I’d even argue that to visit Rio or Mumbai or Cairo and pretend the slums don’t exist seems somehow dishonest. We can’t plead ignorance to their existence—certainly not in the case of Mumbai where the Dharavi slum abuts the runway of the international airport. For most visitors, that fleeting glimpse of the sprawling shantytown is their first—and last—exposure to the crushing poverty and surprising beauty that lies within. That doesn’t seem right.

7 Comments for Slumming It: Can Slum Tourism Be Done Right?

shannon stowell 03.16.09 | 1:54 PM ET

Hey Eric- i appreciate your thoughtful and balanced look at the issue of slum tourism.  Being in the adventure travel industry, we discuss this often.  There is ONE other issue that should be raised- when does this type of tourism KEEP people in their down and out state?  In other words, if the little girl at the entrance of the dump realizes this is the place she’ll get tourist handouts, what is her incentive to leave and better herself.  And much more malignantly- if the bas***s that pimp these children realize that a maimed child brings in more money from tourists than a healthy one, then…...  So.  This is where tour operators with integrity are key to managing this edgy type of tourism.

Rob Verger 03.16.09 | 4:07 PM ET

Thanks for a very thoughtful article, Eric. I thought that you captured the issue very well, and I especially loved this phrase: “To peel off the veil of a world alien to us.” As someone who has taken a slum tour and written about it, I’m always interested to hear what others have to say about it. I also thought an especially important point you made was that tour companies should give a portion of their profits to projects in the communities they tour through—this is essential, and since the tour companies are almost always for-profit endeavors, it should be done more, as you say.

Marilyn Terrell 03.16.09 | 11:22 PM ET

Thanks Eric for linking back to Intelligent Travel’s interview with Chris Way of Reality Tours and Travel in Mumbai. Two good things about his tour company: no photos allowed, and the company runs a community school in Dharavi, with English and computer classes taught by people within the community:

Jennifer 03.17.09 | 8:39 AM ET

Regardless of whatever twist is put on “Slum Tourism”, I just can’t bring myself to condone it!  It’s great that tour companies are “giving back” but basically what is happening is they are saying, “Let us exploit you and you will get something in return”!  Exploitation is exploitation no matter how you slice it!  This isn’t really any different than parading people through a pschiatric hospital as entertainment.  Both mental patients and those trapped in a slum, you could say, are down on their luck and have very little to no control over their situations!  How is this any different?  Is all of the “giving back ” really going to make a sizable difference or is it mostly a weak, pathetic ploy used to ease the conscience of those participating in slum tourism?

Raj Gyawali 03.17.09 | 11:14 AM ET

I think it is very well put Eric, and I appreciate that you have not only written about it from one side, I think though you have a clear opinion, the article is very balanced. It is very difficult to say when tourism starts becoming voyeuristic and unjust and irresponsible and what the borders are.

Using an example from my country, is going through a poor village in the mountains of Nepal and “looking” into their lives irresponsible? Some of these villagers are poorer than the Mumbai slum communities.

I think that we are too quick to draw a line in our minds between good and bad. What is important is that the practice needs to be right. A school for the slum kids can make a big big impact and difference in the lives of the people in the slums. Agreed, that if the tours were going to Tak Mahal and the donations to the slum school, it might have been better, but there are chances of making a bigger impact by taking the tours (responsible practices apply here) through the slums itself. There is a cross-cultural aspect of tourism that cannot be ignored, that understanding each others conditions can help foster a better global thinking between humans!

Janet Go 04.13.09 | 12:11 PM ET

While in Rio de Janeiro last January, my friend and I took a ride into one of the favelas on the hills overlooking Rio. We were driven there by a local guide, and when we parked in the favela, our guide introduced us to a young man who lives in the favela . He led us around. We were told not to take photos of the inhabitants, but we did take some views of Rio from rooftops in the favela. We were respectful of the people who watched us, and we bought some paintings from an artist there. We passed mini-shops along the winding, narrow paths. Our guide said many of the people who live there have jobs and ride the public buses to the city.  Every house had a TV set and many people used cell phones. True, there was clutter and trash along the paths and the stench was sometimes bad, but the guide said these people live virtually free. The government pays their rent, utilities, and provides buses and schools.  I am told that residents who live lower on the hillsides are told to report to the police sightings of building taking place in the favela. Authorities are trying to stop people from moving farther up the hillside. As a writer, I was curious about living conditions in the favela and was glad I had the chance to see it for myself.

Bebette 04.18.09 | 2:30 AM ET

If you can’t find a suitable guide, don’t go it alone! You may not think of yourself as wealthy, but people in extreme poverty believe you are, and there is always a criminal element when there is desperation. Don’t be quick to place your trust in a chatty cab driver or friendly local - once you’re in a rough area, anything can happen. For me, it was as simple as taking a cab ride to a non-slum area. When the driver took me instead to a place that looked quite terrifying and said that we were at my destination (I knew we weren’t). What could I do? 2 men were waiting for me outside the cab, and when I asked to go back, he demanded $50. I paid him and actually jumped out of the cab at a red light in a well-populated shopping area on the way to who-knows-where he was taking me.

If you really want to do some good and see how people live in these areas, maybe before your visit you can contact charitable organizations operating there. Offer a day volunteering, or a nice donation in exchange for having one of their personnel show you around one day. You can even ask for a tour so that you can offer publicity through a popular blog, your church or a club. At the very least, ask them what they suggest for your tour - they may direct you to someone else who offers what you are looking for.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.