According to the United Nations, about a quarter of the world’s urban population lives in slums—and this figure is rising fast. Slum tourism has grown into a legitimate global industry, bringing in over a million tourists per year. Tour operators are now offering visits to places like the townships of Cape Town, the favelas of Rio, the slums of New Delhi, or even the skid rows of LA. As slum tourism grows in popularity, it has become an increasingly polarizing and controversial topic.
The idea of paying to venture into a slum seems at best ridiculous and at worst ethically reprehensible and exploitative. Many compare this form of tourism to a zoo, where the locals are treated like animals- you stare from the outside but don’t want to get too close. Some other arguments against slum tourism include tourists who do it for the wrong reasons (for photo opportunities, rather than having meaningful interactions), that operators profit from other’s unfortunate circumstances, money doesn’t funnel back to the community, and that locals rights to privacy are violated, leaving them degraded and humiliated on a daily basis. The implicit critique was that it’s something not worth looking at, and that the operators are just there to make money.
On the other hand, some believe slum tourism has its benefits and can help individuals escape poverty. Some of the strongest arguments are that living conditions improve because some money does enter the community, that it facilitates a shift in outsiders perceptions, and that this exposure gives locals in slums the recognition they otherwise wouldn’t have had. Interviews in India have shed light that this exposure gives local people pride about their community, by showing them that their home is a destination worthy of attention by people who have traveled a long way. By visiting these impoverished areas, visitors realize 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.
If considering to partake in this form of tourism, there are some things you should put into consideration. 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. Find out where the profits go- ideally you will want to choose a tour operator that gives a majority of proceeds back into the community by building schools and providing jobs. Choose a tour that does small groups, so that it is not invasive and distracting towards neighborhoods. In addition, the company should have rules to enforce a no-camera policy and to ensure visitors to dress appropriately.
Reality Tours and Travel is the highest regarded slum tourism operator in the world, with 80% of their profits funneling back to the Indian community by providing access to healthcare and organizing educational programs. Their 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. If choosing Reality Tours, be mindful of companies pretending to be them. Many customers unknowingly choose knockoff tours since they take on similar names and logos.
As travelers increasingly seek unique experiences that promise authentic experiences in previously off-limits places, slum tourism will consistently grow throughout the most impoverished parts of the world. Just as tourism as a whole brings both positive and negative outcomes to the communities it touches, slum tourism brings a mixed bag of pros and cons. Acknowledging and examining both sides of this coin, however, is a necessary first step for tipping the scale toward the positive.