Thursday, 7 June 2012

Slum Tourism...Ethical, Exploitative or Aid?

(Favela do Metro shantytown in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Slum Tour signage in Dharavi India)
(Victor R Caivano/Associated Press Via Passport Blog)

Slum Slum Tour organizer justifies it by saying “travellers come to see the differences from the way they live themselves,” and they “show some good examples of the community.” Another says that “Today poverty tourism is practiced all over the world.” Other organizers say it “raises awareness and brings aid to the destitute of the city.” So is “creating awareness” via slum tours something to be tolerated and accepted because people pay to take pictures of how the slum dwellers live? Would letting it continue eventually help take the slum dwellers away from their impoverished “habitat?” Or would the tour organizers try to “preserve” that habitat and its dwellers to keep making money?

Exploitation was the first thought that came to mind when I read about slum tourism being a phenomenon. People were clearly making profits from the slum tours at the expense of the slum dwellers whose private lives and dire situation are exposed to visitors who want to take pictures of the “realities of life.” Aren’t the media and NGOs already doing that without “collecting payment” for people to be made aware of the slum dwellers’ situation?  

The practice had long been in existence but only came to public scrutiny when the first article on slum tourism was published in the New York Times in March 2008 (NYTimes Weiner, 2009).
Slum tourism isn’t an impromptu act of touring or visiting the slum areas. These are well-organized tours run by profit-making companies or tour agencies complete with websites and tour itineraries of what tourists expect from the tour. These are organizers where most do not donate money back from proceeds into the slum communities they visit.

I wonder if these agencies even bothered to ask the slum residents’ permission to have their private lives exposed for tourism. While some may be in such dire strait as to accept anything including exposure of their private lives for a fee, others suffer the humiliation of having their lives put on display to tourists. Thus, these tours have often been branded as “exploitative, voyeuristic, and imperialistic.” For slum tour operators to justify their trade as “trying to educate tourists about the realities of poverty and are helping to dispel negative stereotypes surrounding slums” is something I personally find pathetic. Though some operators claim to have used tour revenues to build schools or community centers in the slum areas, many get a regular fee from the tours, while the slum residents who the operators benefit from can hardly say that they also regularly benefit from the intrusion on their privacy.  Some operators simply “hope” that the tourists would donate funds to help the residents after seeing the living conditions. The guaranty of getting donations is not absolute. To me, if help you must, then help without taking but give something in return to the community and not simply hope that the tourists would. The community must be involved or the motive becomes subject to criticism and scrutiny.

There are slum tours that focus on cultural or entertainment tours. Cultural tours show how slum residents live their lives and how the slum community functions. Entertainment tours focus on a “safari”-like experience vehicles takes tourists around in open-roof, army-style jeeps or motorcycle ride through the slum areas (source:  

The description being likened to an African safari trip of watching and taking pictures of wild animals from a distance is not hard to miss. It is the focus on poverty and how it is conducted in a safari-like manner as if the slum dwellers’ “habitat” were of wild animals that earned the slum tours wide criticism. The focus on the cultural education for tourists is lost and what is magnified is the profit made by organizers at the slum dwellers’ expense. The “safari experience” offered by tour organizers makes me agree with Wardah Hafidz statement, an activist with the Urban Poor Consortium: “It's not about shame. People should not be exhibited like monkeys in the zoo. What residents get from these tours, in cash or whatever form, only strips them of their dignity and self respect, turning them into mere beggars (source: 'Slum tourism' treads between aid and exploitation’ -

Slum tour organizers and operators however, claim to be corroborating with local NGOs to help slum dwellers benefit from the tours. Many of them say they give back to the communities they visit. Some give money to children’s education centers, children’s projects, schools, in these slum communities. In India, for instance, Reality Tours and Travel in Mumbai set up its own charitable organization, which runs a community centre, kindergarten and cricket program in the slum of Dharavi, according to Chris Way, founder of Reality Tours and Travel.  According to Way’s estimate, “nearly 40 percent of this, or approximately US$23,000, will go back into Dharavi through Reality Gives’ programs -- money the community wouldn’t see otherwise.” The website is complete with an itinerary and cost depending on the type of tour ranging from Rs500 per person to Rs6,800 for five persons. It also shows off the charity organization’s various projects in Dharavi which is part of the tour itinerary.  In Indonesia, each tourist pays 500,000 rupiah ($54) "Jakarta Hidden Tours" to visit, with half of that going to the tour company, and the rest funding doctor visits, microfinance projects or community projects such as school building.

In Brazil, Marcelo Armstrong, who started Favela Tour in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, said his company gives money to a children’s education centre. To further lend credence to the claim that the slum tours are not exploitative, the companies (Reality Tours and Favela Tour) limit picture-taking and only allow tourists to take out their cameras at certain times. (source: The Passport Blog:
But have these slum tours really done good for the community? In India, the number of people living in slums has more than doubled in the past two decades and now exceeds the entire population of Britain, the Indian Government has announced.  The number of people living in slums was projected to rise to 93 million in 2011 or 7.75 percent of the total population, almost double the population of Britain. Census data released in December 2011 by the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) shows that in 2010, about 6% of the population lived in slums in Brazil. It means that 11.4 million of the 190 million people lived in the country areas of irregular occupation and lack of public services or urbanization - called by the IBGE of "subnormal agglomerations"  ( 

Many governments around the world have attempted and continue to try to solve the problems of slums through relocation and construction of better living conditions and sanitation. Often, this causes displacement and violence when slum areas are cleared and the residents find themselves distanced from their main source of livelihood, schools or clinics.  Despite the offer of a better housing, better sanitation and their own land, the slum residents return to where they can earn money for their day-to-day survival.  (See, for example, Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban, South Africa

That slum tourism exists and is a phenomenon cannot be argued with. These are facts that have to be accepted...and there are people who make money from it. Some maybe there for the intent of also creating awareness but it cannot be discounted that others are there simply for the profit at the expense of the impoverished. What is essential is for governments, NGOs and communities to address any possibility of exploitation and profiteering and be closely involved in ensuring that the slum dwellers do not suffer from intrusion of their private lives from greedy profit-makers without conscience. The community must be involved.

  1. A Trip into the Controversy: A Study of Slum Tourism Travel Motivations
  2. Rappler: 'Slum tourism' treads between aid and exploitation’ -
  3. The Passport Blog:     

By Lylin Aguas


  1. What a great article, Lylin. I don't quite understand why so many people go on trips to see the conditions in which less fortunate people live, only to come home and talk about those "poor people" and "how sad it was to see it."

  2. Paola, much as I try to find something positive about what these slum tour agencies are doing, and the "help" they give these slum dwellers, what I see is exploitation of the dire state these people are in so the agencies can profit from it. I can only hope that the "help" they give is borne out of sincerity and compassion for the poor. Thanks for your comment:)