Who benefits from slum tourism?

slumWith two months to go till the Rio Olympics, we’re revisiting an issue we’ve addressed before – the pros and cons of ‘slum’ tourism.

Many people are probably instinctively uncomfortable with the idea of wealthy tourists paying money to look at poor people. However as tourists seek out new experiences these tours are growing in popularity. Although there are a number of terms used to name this controversial phenomenon, including, Poverty tourism, slum tourism, favela tours, and reality tours – they all describe the same practice: organised excursions to informal settlements, or “slums”.

The earliest form of poverty tourism can be traced to the 1800s in London. The Victorian elite developed excursions to see how the poor lived. These trips to slums or “slumming” came primarily from curiosity, excitement, and thrill, but others were also motivated by moral and altruistic reasons. As with tourism in general, slum tourism has expanded and developed into an entire industry in itself, but the driving motivators for going on these tours remain similar to those that were documented in Victorian London.

Today slum tours are sold as an alternative to traditional tourism and a more realistic form of experiencing a country – getting in touch with real people and the local culture. An estimated 40,000 tourists visit favelas in Rio de Janeiro each year while 300,000 visit the townships in Cape Town. Every day about 1,000 tourists are estimated to visit Soweto, one of South Africa’s most famous townships and there are tour operators offering slum tours to Dharavi (India), and Kibera (Kenya). Tours can also include visiting street children, who scratch a living from collecting rubbish in India’s main railway stations or people surviving on debris they can find on rubbish heaps. There are also Bed and Breakfast lodgings in some areas, making it possible for tourists to spend a night or two in a “slum.”

Despite the growing popularity of slum tours they also attract much criticism and controversy. On the one hand, proponents argue that tours can contribute to a change in the representation of the slums and its people and that slum tourism is a legitimate way to fight poverty. They also argue that the tours help tourists to better understand the world and become more compassionate. Opponents argue that it’s exploitative of poor people and really doesn’t add much to the understanding of the complicated issues. Moreover, they highlight the fact that the motivation to undertake this kind of experience is only related to voyeuristic consumption of poverty and that the basic human rights of the local residents to dignity and privacy are often undermined. Additionally the inhabitants of these communities have an uneven access to the benefits generated by tourism.

Of course the reality is more complex. For example if the tours are community based, where negative stereotypes are challenged and local residents have control over and benefit from tourism activities, then this could bring real and lasting benefits to some of the poorest communities.

However, given that almost every tour operator will market their tour as beneficial to the community, it is difficult for tourists to know which tours are supported by the communities and will bring real benefits and which are just marketing hype and exploitative. The best people to advise tourists are the residents themselves; so local people must have a say in any tourist development and will also provide a better understanding on how these tours affect their communities. Tourism Concern has been looking at ways we can involve local communities in providing guidelines for tourists, especially in Brazil as the upcoming Olympics is likely to increase interest in favela tourism.

There are a number of formal tour operators offering tours in Rocinha, the biggest favela in Brazil with an estimated 200,000 inhabitants, and visiting the location has become a must do for many foreign tourists. It is estimated that at least 3500 tourists visit Rocinha per month paying around £25 for a tour with an average duration of 3 hours.

We spoke to residents in Rocinha on the possible tourism-related benefits and challenges in their community and about their perception of tourists. When asked about actual benefits or what changes tourism has brought to their community the most common answer was “none”. Francisco (a mototaxi operator) response was typical

For the community I don’t see any difference, I see difference in the number of people in the community, we see a lot of foreigners, but benefits for the community I don’t see any.”

Equally, according to some residents, the way Rocinha is presented in the tours might actually be reinforcing the negative aspects with tour operators exaggerating the negative aspects and ignoring many of the positive aspects of life in Rocinha. As the majority of tour guides are not Rocinha residents it seems there is no real concern about the veracity of the facts presented and how it can affect the perceptions of tourists.

Furthermore any actual benefits reach just a small percentage of the community and are mainly directed to the ones involved with selling souvenirs or handicrafts; despite this residents still believe that tourism has the potential to impact positively on a larger number of people. Residents hoped that at some point tourism would bring financial resources for social projects and generate jobs for local people. As one resident told us

“I think all of us see tourism as an opportunity to get some help for social projects, schools, and so forth… the positive is that through tourism we can show that not 100% of the people in favelas are bad people or criminals…”

Despite the belief that these tours will one day benefit the community this doesn’t necessarily mean that the residents agree with the way these tourism activities take place in their community. Residents were clear that greater benefits could be achieved if there was a stronger commitment from the companies who operate tours in Rocinha.

Politicians are also beginning to take an interest resulting in Rio city council considering a bill which proposed to combat exploitative tourism in the Favelas – with the councillor commenting on many of the current tour operators

They’re not community businesses and they don’t have the slightest concern for the local culture, history, or artists. They come in like it’s some kind of curiosity, like they’re going into a zoo,”

Even in South Africa, where township tours are well established there is little evidence of the positive impacts tour operators use in their marketing material – and there are concerns that the most deprived households involved in their tours are not fairly compensated. Recent research also identified several barriers that prevent township residents from successfully developing their businesses and sharing in the material gains available through tourism. Regardless the township dwellers generally welcome tourism because it represents the only industry through which many can enhance their living conditions.

In India the popularity of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, doubled the number of visitors to Dharavi, a well-known inner-city slum in Mumbai. The movie meant tourists arrived with specific expectations for the slum and resulted in potentially damaging and disrespectful mindsets, such as calling Dharavi a “posh slum” that was more organized and less destitute than expected.

Despite the concerns with slum tourism there is no doubt that there are some good initiatives, which have improved the lives of residents and resulted in genuine cultural exchange. It also seems that local communities do tend to welcome tourists and enjoy engaging with them if the interaction is respectful and considered. These tours can be beneficial if tour operators genuinely care about and come from their communities, if tourists take a bit of time to understand the issues and if local people are paid fairly – and whilst some tours donate a percentage of income to charity – most residents, whether in townships, slums or favelas want decent jobs and a fair wage. As one resident of Rochina told us

“We don’t want charity, we want qualifications, we want to be able to work and earn our livelihood and show our history the way it really is.”


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