The international success of Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 shed light on life inside slums, specifically Mumbai’s Dharavi slum. According to Chris Way, founder of Reality Tours and Travel (RTT), the largest slum tourism operator in Mumbai, the area witnessed a 25% rise in business after the release of the film.

Slum tourism, while not a new phenomenon, has seen a resurgence in recent years, as travelers seek more “authentic” travel experiences. Needless to say, it has created tension within communities about the kinds of images it is conveying of destinations, and raised questions about the motives of tour operators leading them.

In 2013, Michael Myers, former owner of Real Bronx Tours, received an open letter from the New York City Council. The Council perceived the tours as “immoral,” only serving to highlight the negative features of The Bronx. Eventually, the company’s’ website was shut down.

According to a 2015 report by UN-Habitat, there are three defining features of informal settlements: 1) lack of security of tenure, 2) lack of basic city infrastructure and services, and 3) incompatible housing with current planning and building regulations.

The growth of slums, or informal settlements, is one of the biggest challenges that cities are dealing with today. According to UN-Habitat, an estimated 25% of the world’s population live in informal settlements. 61.7% of those are in Africa, 30% in Asia, and 24% in Latin America and the Caribbean region.

Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India. CC by Clément Touchard (2013)

Starting 1992, slum tourism took off in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, townships in South Africa, slums in India, and socially or religiously divided communities in the United States. Professor Fabian Frenze, a lecturer in political economy at the University of Leicester, asserts that global informal areas receive a total of one million visitors annually. South Africa’s townships receive 300,000 tourists every year.

Typical slum tours take at most four hours, and they are designed in a way so that tourists get the chance to interact with residents, and in many cases get a panoramic view of the whole slum. Despite its relative economic success – as happened in the months leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, when tens of thousands of visitors signed up for Airbnb rents and favela guides – slum tourism has continuously been criticized for its ‘voyeuristic’ and ‘exploitative’ approach, with some critics claiming that such tours “have no place on an ethical traveler’s itinerary.”

Slum Tourism’s Contemporary Ethics

“Tourism is now more than the traveler’s game,” writes Davydd J. Greenwood in his chapter “Culture by the Pound: An Anthropological Perspective on Tourism as Cultural Commoditization.” He goes on to explain that, contemporary tourism is mainly promoted through selling socially and culturally manipulated images. Indirectly, tourists invest in the process of choreographing desirable places. Eventually, such places are more of a stage than an authentic location.

Slum tourism is always a subject of ethical questioning, despite its social motivations. The 2012 publication Slum Tourism: Poverty, Power and Ethics highlights the notion of ethics regarding poverty as a source of mass attractiveness. Is poverty now a source of entertainment?

This contextual ethics poses a dual concern. On the one hand, images of destinations that portray poverty attract the cultural gaze of tourists and investors. On the other, tourists’ curiosity and interests seek out images that are largely formed by literary and visually representation of slums. Some theorists refer to this process as “poverty porn.”

The book further spotlights the controversial power relationship between tourists and slum dwellers. It raises several questions: How are slums portrayed in slum tourism? Are they objectively and fairly represented, or fantasized and dramatized? Who profits from slums being sold as a gazing site? Do tour operators actually support the slum community, socially and financially?

It is this notion of social voyeurism that raises issues concerning power. Are tourists portrayed as more powerful than slum inhabitants? It is precisely this question that makes slum tourism operators the subjects of an onslaught of criticism.

Most slum tourism companies give tourists an opportunity to get a panoramic view of the whole slum. Rocinha slum in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Rasmus Bang on Unsplash.

Most slum tourism companies give tourists an opportunity to get a panoramic view of the whole slum. Rocinha slum in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Rasmus Bang on Unsplash.

An Issue of Morality

In a 2010 op-ed for The New York Times titled “Slumdog Tourism,” Kennedy Odede, a Kenyan resident of Kibera, Nairobi and Africa’s largest slum, expresses his discomfort with slum tourism. In the op-ed, he claims that it snatches away residents’ dignity in exchange for a few photos, adding that the cons outweigh any potential benefit to the community. He recalls an incident of a tour that a group into the home of a young woman giving birth. Silently, they stood by, taking pictures of her screaming in pain.

Similarly, David Fennell, a professor of tourism and environment at Brock University in Ontario, asserts that slum tourism is an alternative technique of exploitation whose actual purpose is for Western foreigners to feel good about their socio-economic status.

According to an empirical study at University of Potsdam, the interaction with the negative connotation arising from the image of slums generates a contradictory response; either a feeling of distancing oneself from such deteriorated places, or an ignited sense of interest and curiosity.

The Case of Dharavi

In what they claim is an attempt to raise social awareness about slums, Reality Tours and Travel (RTT) increased the number of visitors to slums from 150 to 15,000 annually in the span of 10 years. Co-founder and tour operator Krishna Pujari claims that the company has pledged to give 80% of the revenue back to the slum community.

He states that the tours break down harmful stereotypes of slums and increase the confidence of local residents. In 2009, RTT set up the NGO Reality Gives to provide educational and training services for slum dwellers. The NGO also supports a number of micro-enterprises and community initiatives, including sports, beekeeping, and youth employment programs.

In 2012, at a ceremony hosted at World Travel Market (WTM) in London, RTT received the Responsible Travel Award for their continuous efforts to improve the life of slum inhabitants through tours.

The Case of Rio de Janeiro

Following the international success of the Brazilian film City of God in 2002 – which largely took place in the slums of Rio de Janeiro – Rio’s favelas attracted a flocks of tourists. Today, Rio’s biggest and most famous favela, Rocinha, receives over 40,000 visitors annually, making it the fourth most visited attraction in Rio. As with other slums, it is notorious for drug traffic and violence, as well as great cultural expression.

Today, around seven tour companies organize tours in Rocinha, attracting 3,500 visitors per month. According to one study conducted at the Université libre de Bruxelles, two of the companies saw a noticeable increase in the number of website visitors in a single week in the lead-up to the World Cup in June 2010. Favela Adventures visitors rose from 61,675 to 62,992, and those of Favela Tour rose from 105,264 to 105,707.

Rocinha. CC by: jon c 77 (2012)

Much like RTT in India, these tour operators serve the local residents one way or another. Favela Tour provides financial support to a community school in Vila Canoas. Favela Adventures saves up to 25% of its profits to open a Rocinha Arts and Cultural Institute.

Yet it is not always a satisfying image. Brazilian academic Bianca Freire-Medeiros from the University of Sao Paulo conducted a small-scale study of the local community’s responses to the tourist visits that they receive. The general outcome was mainly negative.

Francisco, a 34-year-old mototaxi driver, denies that the tours have made any difference in the community. He claims that most of the benefits go to people selling souvenirs or handicrafts rather than the residents. Peter, a 42-year-old fisherman, believes that investment in social projects is the ultimate benefit brought to the community.

Thus, while tour operators may be seeking to change negative images of favelas, there is often a clear lack of physical connectivity with the place. One handicraft vendor noticed the utter lack of communication between the tourists and the locals. “They have made their money already so they just come show something and disappear,” he says.

What next for slum tourism?

As a positive outlook, by 2005, i.e. 3 years after the release of City of God, American Journalist Robert Neuwirth portrays the new dwelling forms inside Rochina. “Today there are 30,000 homes in Rocinha spread across the sharp incline of Two Brothers Mountain. Most are two, three, or four stories tall, made from reinforced concrete and brick”, he claims.

Although authenticity has become a much-sought-out notion for modern travelers seeking face-to-face encounters with local cultures and traditions, ironically, as John Urry puts it, tourism photographers tend to “freeze townscapes in an idyllic and untouched chocolate-box vision where time moves slowly if at all.”

Whether or not slum tourism can have a significant impact on the people living in slums is still questionable, as a few hours of strolling is hardly enough to make any real change. Yet many argue that it is a step.

And as slum tour operators become more common, some perceive them as money-making firms rather than social projects.

Above all, we should ask ourselves the right questions. Can slum tourism make a difference? Do we want the tour to change the area? Are there certain regulated mechanisms that oblige tour companies to give back to the community? Can this kind of social engagement with the inhabitants of slums make their lives better?

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