Academic Fabian Frenzel proposes a new way of evaluating slum tourism.
Slum tourism, my current research interest, can be defined as a specific niche activity within international tourism. It describes the one million tourists that annually visit a slum, a township or a favela, normally in organised three-hour tours. But slum tourism can also be seen as a much broader phenomenon, where slums, poverty and inequality are a central reason that motivates travel, from volunteering and international activism to research tourism.
It’s certainly a feature of today’s tourism that much of it takes people to places that are relatively poor. For decades we academics and researchers have discussed two concerns linked to this: on the one hand, tourists are privileged in power and resources, leaving those they visit potentially vulnerable. On the other hand, tourism comes with a promise of a potential redistribution of wealth from the richer to the poorer. My fellow academic Regina Scheyvens has described this double concern as the ‘tourism-poverty nexus’.
In many ways current debates about slum tourism mirror those older ones about the tourism-poverty nexus. There are concerns over the moral implications of tourists venturing into poor neighbourhoods. There is outright rejection of such pursuits as voyeuristic and abusive. In reply, tour operators and defenders of slum tourism highlight its benefits. It channels, they say, resources from the tourists to those living in poor neighbourhoods.
However slum tourism does more than continue old debates of ‘blessing and blight’. When tourism takes on poverty as the main impetus for travel, it challenges the meaning of the activity itself as a social practice. We’ve become used to thinking of tourism as a leisure pursuit; and as opposed to work, leisure is not seen as serious, in fact as somewhat superfluous to our lives. As a result we have few expectations of what tourism can do, for example in the context of lifting people out of poverty. The debate seems to return, in the main, to how tourism can best transfer money from visitor to visited, strengthening our perception of tourism as an industry.
But in slum tourism, poverty is not just a more or less accidental condition of a place visited for other reasons. In slum tourism, poverty is actually the attraction itself, and choosing to visit the urban poor, tourists are taking on a serious concern. It could be that they are attempting to understand the reasons for inequality, or for the existence of slums, and that they are seeking out ways to affect change. In other words, this kind of tourism may be their way of engaging with the world, not escaping from it.
There is increasing evidence that today people have a desire to use their free time for serious purposes: to get involved in political debates, to support and volunteer in projects and to find meaningful engagement in the world around them. With increased mobility, the spaces in which those activities are pursued are becoming global. There are many examples now of how this is happening in slum tourism: tourists joining with residents in fighting evictions and house demolitions, tourists questioning neglect in the provision of public services and tourists enabling reverse visits: making it easier for those visited to move across the world themselves.
There is no question that such worthy causes do not motivate all slum tourists. Given ever present power imbalances, even well meaning initiatives may at times cause more harm than good. Slum tourism needs to be considered carefully and critically. But I would argue that slum tourism, more than many other forms of tourism, evokes the symbolic power of this human activity: a social practice that has the potential to generate global discussions about inequality and justice.
It is this potential that I feel we need to evaluate in slum tourism, rather than simply limiting our expectations to an acceptance that the best we can do as tourists and tour operators is to provide monetary compensation for the industry’s negative impacts.
Fabian Frenzel is the author of “Slumming It – The tourist valorisation of urban poverty” (Zed Books 2016)