Five-Star Poverty

For most, the idea of vacation evokes images of beaches, famous landmarks, or museums in exotic locations. For the approximately one million people each year who opt to partake in ‘slum tourism’ — a practice which involves travelling to an area of extreme poverty — the idea of vacation takes on an entirely new meaning.

Although slum tourism first gained attention in the 1990s, the practice originated in 19th-century London. Upper-class residents temporarily abandoned their high-brow lifestyles in West London to don plain clothing and ride midnight buses to the impoverished, overcrowded East End. Some were reformers, though many others just liked to gawk at the poor.

An 1884 New York Times article entitled “Slumming in this Town: A Fashionable London Mania Reaches New York” chronicles the spread of the phenomenon from London to the United States, dubbing slum tourism an act of “sightseeing.” The article also pronounces “slumming parties to be the rage this winter,” predicting a surge in destination-visits to slums in Harlem.

Today, instead of taking midnight buses to the East End, or journeying to Harlem, visitors most commonly engage in slum tourism by flying to the Global South: popular destinations include South Africa, India, and Brazil. According to a recent paper by Melissa Nisbett, Senior Lecturer in Arts and Cultural Management at King’s College London, modern slum tours are colorfully marketed and organized by private groups, charities, and NGOs.

While the industry’s defenders cite the awareness of poverty and impetus for change that such tours evoke, others approach slum tourism with greater skepticism, pointing to the exploitative nature of tour companies and the sense of voyeurism that harken back to English East End sightseeing.

The Contemporary Path of Slum Tourism

Slum tours were formalized on a small-scale throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Fabian Frenzel, a professor at the University of Leicester and author of the recent book Slumming It, said in an interview with the HPR, slum tourism was revitalized in the 1990s as democratization swept the globe. Frenzel pointed to the influence of social media as a factor in slum tourism’s burgeoning popularity, as slum tourists gained the ability to make their trips accessible to others online.

Frenzel is optimistic that this visibility can eventually contribute to poverty alleviation, though he cautioned that an increasingly protectionist future may limit authentic experiences of poverty in slum tourism. Frenzel warned against future tourist organizations that may “sanitize” what he viewed as the natural interactions between visitors and slum residents, in order to create a “purely economic” transaction rather than cross-cultural exchange. Perhaps this has already begun — a few luxury shantytowns, or hotels mimicking poor huts, have sprung up in places like Bloemfontein, South Africa for the well-off to ‘experience’ poverty within the bounds of a luxury resort.

The Ethical Debate

For now, however, the streams of tourists globally remain strong, and the debate among scholars about the morality of slum tourism is heated.

The largest company to organize commercial slum tours, Reality Tours, is based in India and assists 15,000 tourists annually. Reality Tours’ website explains the tours’ purpose, stating that “travel can be educational and positively influence international affairs.”

Some scholars are sympathetic to organizations like Reality Tours’ missions. Frenzel argued that slum tourism raises awareness of inequality and can attract attention to areas commonly overlooked by those in power. For Frenzel, slum tourism creates a “permanently evolving story,” as new visitors leave the slums with a more complete understanding of how the poorest live.

Others have visceral reactions to the commercialization of poverty for profit and the creation of yet another sphere commodified and marketed to those who can afford it. This can seem especially insidious when tourists pay companies to visit poor areas — such an outcome suggests that the rich are so disconnected from the poor that an industry must be spearheaded to force the two to intermingle.

Nisbett told the HPR that on tours, “poverty isn’t just normalized, but romanticized.” In her extensive study of Mumbai slum tours, she found many visitors left believing the residents to be “poor but happy.” In TripAdvisor reviews left by visitors, the slum was “seen as a place where people ‘flourished’ and ‘thrived,’” with reviewers emphasizing the “industriousness” of residents with little to no mention of their daily hardships, including poor health care or lack of access to food. This can partially be attributed to tours that emphasize economic prowess within slums rather than more concerning topics. Ultimately, Nisbett found that the majority of visitors leave the tour believing there to be no problem.

Out of the Slums

Though the scholarly debate has centered on the ethics of slum tourism itself, the deeper problem is the conditions that make slum tourism profitable.

William Robinson, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara and an expert in modern capitalism and trans-national tourism, explained to the HPR that for potential —often young — slum tourists, the desire to more deeply understand a country, or to feel that one is contributing to poverty alleviation, is understandable. But the feel-good spirit of slum tourism is illusory at best, and counterproductive at worst.

Slum tourism is symptomatic of deepening inequality in the United States. As Robinson argued, the industry’s surge in popularity over the past few decades is a dangerous symbol of the extremes brought about by modern capitalism, and is a sign of the urgent need to reverse course. According to Robinson, globalization’s massive expansion of transportation systems has paved the way for these sorts of interactions: prior to the media spreading images of the poor, and before the modern economy began to facilitate easy interaction with the poor, slum tourism was not nearly as sophisticated as it is today.

Today’s mass inequality created the conditions for slum tourism, and the spectacle of viewing the poor as though they are of another world entirely — in short, what made venturing to the East End so thrilling was the forbidden, other-worldly nature of poverty that persists today. Robinson further noted that “nothing comes out of [slum tourism] in terms of changing the structures of global capitalism that generates that … impoverishment … [tourists] simply come away feeling good.” Nisbett’s findings also highlight this gap between interest and actions, with her recent study demonstrating the lack of action tourists take to remedy inequality after participating in slum tours.

While Frenzel is optimistic that exposure to slums might induce political change, slum tourism does not lay the groundwork for a future that changes the material conditions of poverty. Ultimately, as Robinson said, “[Slum tourism] is not linked to any program of social and economic transformation that would actually alleviate global inequality.” When pressed about the potential for slum tours to create true change for slum residents, even Frenzel acknowledged that evidence tying the industry to policy action is “hard to come by.” So before choosing a visit to a favela in Rio de Janeiro over a Brazilian resort, consider carefully the conditions that have propelled slum tourism to its popularity, and the inaction that allows the industry to continue expanding. Perhaps we are not far removed from the spectatorship of fashionable English slumming parties, after all.

Image Credit: Flickr/Juan Antonio Segal

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