Slum tourism: Sightseeing with a social message

Navigating a moral dilemma

Ella Parker

Society and culture, Development | Asia, South Asia

10 May 2019

The ethics surrounding poverty tourism are complex, but there are ways we can approach this industry with a greater positive impact. Ella Parker writes.

Inequality. It’s one of the most pressing challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, with almost 30 per cent of the world’s urban population living in slums and 10.7 per cent of people living on less than $1.90 a day.

In resolving any large-scale problem, ‘awareness of the issue’ is always presented as the first step. On this basis, it would be beneficial for those in positions of privilege to have a real look at how the other half live, right?

That’s where slum tourism plays a role.

Slum Tourism originated in the 19th century when wealthy Londoners ‘braved’ tours of the city’s impoverished East End. Today it has spawned into an official industry, bringing in more than a million visitors a year.  Slum tourism is especially popular in India, particularly following the success of the film Slumdog Millionaire which was set in the slums of Dharavi.

While Dharavi inhabits have become accustomed to the influx of rich westerners who come to scrutinize their living conditions, it nonetheless remains an uncomfortable experience for those on the other side of the tour. Residents must tolerate passersby leaning in to look at them in their homes or witnessing them on the way back from their communal showers.

This raises our first moral dilemma.

Is it better for groups of privileged westerners come to stare at, and invade the privacy of, the world’s most vulnerable people, before returning to the safety of their hotels? Or is it better for tourists to visit a country and pretend that poverty does not exist at all?

There is a strong argument for the former case. By visiting slums, tourists can spread awareness and break the taboo surrounding such places.

Many slum tourism companies also use a percentage of their ticket funds to contribute to education and health care in the area. In addition, since governments tend to invest in tourism, the slum tourism industry may encourage authorities to invest in local infrastructure which, in the long run, will improve the quality of life for slum residents.

However, there is no evidence of this happening yet in Dharavi, with the only contributions being made coming from the funds collected from slum tour tickets.

But how do local people feel being the subject of pity for a few hours before the wealthy foreigners return home?

More on this: An end to poverty in Thailand is not on the cards

Confusion is undoubtedly one emotion. Slum tourism is a relatively new phenomenon across most of the developing world. It is likely that people who live in poverty cannot understand how people with sufficient funds to travel the world, would choose to spend their money visiting slums.

Another moral dilemma is how to guarantee that tour companies are actually donating a significant amount back to the affected communities. How much money are the people who have to tolerate daily visitors to their homes actually receiving in return for being put on display in potentially demoralizing positions?

Similarly, how do we know that tourists are actually giving back in some way, rather than just quenching their own curiosity?

There are companies that runs slum tours in Dharavi, some of whom are passing on up to 80 per cent of profits to local charities. It is questionable though, whether this makes a significant difference, or whether it is simply a mechanism to make participants feel slightly less guilty about paying to look at and potentially degrade, people living in poverty.

While the aim these tours may be to prove how slums are lively places of work and social activity, how do participants know what is being omitted? How much is a constructed reality, aimed at reducing the reputation of India’s impoverished state? Regardless of whether the slums are not ‘as bad as expected’, there’s no question that they are still unfit places to live.

Although slum tourism will likely always remain controversial, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the negative impacts it has on local residents.

Firstly, visitors should participate only in small group tours, so as to reduce disruption to the neighborhood.

Secondly, visitors should ensure that the interactions with local people are meaningful. They should learn and understand the realities of the local people’s lifestyle, rather than just ‘seeing’. This information should then be used to take further actions for change.

Finally, tourists and the broader community should make sure that slum tourism companies’ profits are used for the good of the community, and that successful projects have been undertaken with these funds.

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