Exploring The Complexity and Controversial World of Slum Tourism.
How do the locals feel about it?
Who does it benefit?
Can it be done right?
Slumming was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1860s, meaning “to go into, or frequent, slums for discreditable purposes; to saunter about, with a suspicion, perhaps, of immoral pursuits.”
According to the UN-Habitat the world’s slum population was estimated to have reached 889 million by 2020. For this reason, it was important to explore the origins of the slum population and the emerging pattern-the controversial slum tourism.
There’s always a heated reaction when slum tourism is brought up. To proponents, 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. I decided to pick and explore the latter. The fact is that the controversy over slum tourism says more about tourism than it does about slums.
Slum tourism isn’t a new form of amusement. It dates back more than 150 years, when the upper Victorian class traveled from London to the east of the city to see how the lower class lived and compare slums abroad to those back home.
This project was inspired by a recent trip I made. I wanted to research more about the new city I wanted to explore and one thing caught my attention-Slum Tours.
As a curious human, building an interesting discussion about the factors which attract people to visit slums and how companies manage these excursions looked like something exciting. What’s this global cinema? Is it an important agency to promote this kind of tourism?
I took time to read more about slum tours and I was shocked when I came across posts like:
“Are you looking for something different than the usual dose of museums, beach resorts, and restaurants? I won’t lie, I unconsciously said yes.
Posts requested the travel enthusiasts to turn to places that may seem antithesis for the typical vacation destination: Slums. Far from being viewed as off-limits, It’s shocking that it is a thing now when you visit several tourism portals, five-star reviews for these tours highlight their ‘awareness quotient’. The reviews range from wanting to meet some additional locals as they were extremely nice and friendly to expressing surprise that there was “extreme poverty everywhere, but so much life”.
Most of the “Poor” and “Terrible’’ reviews do not mention the nature of tourism, but rather disapprove of the experience in the dirty, congested slums. Reviewers generally note that though there was poverty, there was no suffering and people living in the slums were happy. I conducted an analysis of the reviews and they show that poverty was ignored, denied, overlooked and romanticized, but moreover, it was de-politicized.
For about 23 euros, I joined a group of tourists and we were promised a glimpse into the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living in tiny rooms along dirty roads littered with plastic bags filled with excrement called “flying toilets”.
I was shocked that they didn’t bring up the reason why the slums existed. It felt like the tour de-contextualized the plight of the poor and seemed to only empower the privileged. So, is poverty the central reason to visit?
Locals do not like or want to be put on display for tourists and often feel demoralized by it. Locals complained that many tourists visit out of curiosity, not with the intent of giving back to the community. Why is that not considered? Or does their economic status leave them voiceless?
Interestingly, much of the commentary on slum tourism comes from those living in the industrialized Western world and is predominantly based on opinions and anecdotal information. It is time to hear from those who actually live in these areas.
I can confidently say that since poverty lacks recognition and voice, tourism provides the audience for a much-needed story to be told, and even taking the most commodifying tour is better than ignoring that inequality completely.
Slum tours are the perfect example of a vicious cycle where the run-down aspects of a community are commercialized.
Allegedly, slum tours or as they are commonly known, Reality Tours, hope to challenge the stereotypical perception of slums as despairing places inhabited by (according to them) hopeless people.
Despite sincere attempts by the tour operators to mitigate offense and give back to the locals, the impact of slum tourism stays isolated.
In conclusion, this feature proves how complex this issue is. For the long-term future of these communities and while illuminating the issue on a small scale, slum tourism is not a sufficient answer to a global problem.
The focus of the future should not be just on the presence of slum tourism, but how it can be best planned and implemented to enhance the lives of those dwelling in these poor areas.
Could there be room for diversifying, for example, of finding new stories to tell or designing differently themed tours (If they are really necessary), such as ones focused on food or women’s lives?
Key to note: I had permission to photograph this from the community officials and the subjects, but the tour itself had a no photography policy for the tourists.
I will continue to post more about this controversial and thought-provoking practise especially the voices of the locals.
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