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Slum tourism: What is it and how does it work?

Slum tourism is, believe it or not, a real type of tourism. Yep, you got that right- people go to slums whilst on holiday. But, why? In this article I will introduce you to the concept of slum tourism and tell you what it’s all about. Interested to learn more? Read on…

What is slum tourism?

Slum tourism

Slum tourism is essentially when people visit slums – or, more widely, poverty stricken areas – as a form of tourism. This will generally be in a foreign country, one they are visiting as a tourist on holiday or on a business trip. It has also been referred to as ghetto tourism and poverty tourism.

Slum tourism definitions

In ‘Theorizing Slum Tourism’, researchers Eveline Dürr and Rivke Jaffe described slum tourism as follows: 

Slum tourism involves transforming poverty, squalor and violence into a tourism product. Drawing on both altruism and voyeurism, this form of tourism is a complex phenomenon that raises various questions concerning power, inequality and subjectivity.

While this describes slum tourism, it doesn’t necessarily define what it actually is. Bob Ma of the University of Pennsylvania says this:

Slum tourism is one of the fastest-growing niche tourism segments in the world, but it is also one of the most controversial. The United Nations defines a slum as, “a run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security” (UN, 2007). Slum tourism is the organization of tours in these areas. As a niche segment, slum tourism is distinguished from developmental tourism, which is a broader term that includes tourism in any region that is undergoing development.

Slum tourism as charity tourism

Some people engage in charity tourism – visiting slums or areas of high poverty with the intention of ‘making things better’. This is also sometimes called volunteer tourism. You can see this on Children In Need in the UK, for example, where we see videos of people heading to various underdeveloped areas of Africa to build schools or install wells for fresh water access etc. You can pay (a lot of) money to do this yourself through various organisations.

Slum tourism

People do this as it is within human nature to want to help people who have less than we do. But it is also, of course, a chance to see somewhere new and explore a different culture. It can also be a great way to boost your CV. This means that taking part in slum tourism isn’t a purely selfless act, and this is why it can sometimes be frowned upon.

Studies show that slum tourism can have negative impacts on local communities – the use of unskilled labour, for example, and the taking of jobs that could ultimately have gone to local people. There is also usually no long term commitment involved, and of course there is the concept of white saviour syndrome.

What is white saviour syndrome?

The following extract comes from De-constructing the ‘White Saviour Syndrome’: A Manifestation of Neo-Imperialism by Felix Willuweit:

‘With the recent widespread of protests for black civil rights and against racism across the Western world, the topic of white prejudice has risen to the centre of public attention, of which one manifestation is the so-called ‘White Saviour Syndrome’.  Whether it is Ed Sheeran posing for ‘Comic Relief’ with a number of black children (Hinsliff, 2019), Madonna adopting children from Malawi (Hinsliff, 2019), or students going on adventures advertised for ‘young philanthropists’ within a multi-million dollar gap-year industry (Bandyopadhyay, 2019), numerous cases of altruistic acts of ‘White Saviours’ can be found throughout popular culture in the global North.’

Whereas these practices follow an altruistic narrative, they are commonly criticised as serving to satisfy a ‘White Saviour Syndrome’, the phenomenon in which a white person “guides people of colour from the margins to the mainstream with his or her own initiative and benevolence” which tends to render the people of colour “incapable of helping themselves” and disposes them of historical agency (Cammarota, 2011: 243-244).

What does a slum tour involve?

So what does slum tourism involve? Many tour operators offer literal ‘slum tours’ as part of their packages, and of course you can visit slum areas alone as they are just parts of various areas., for example, have a page discussing slum tours and they state that some of their packages do offer slum visits in Kenya, Uganda, Namibia and more.

favela tour

Reality Tours and Travel are another company offering slum tours. As the company name suggests, they hope to offer a ‘realistic’ side to the places tourists visit. Based in India, a country with a lot of poverty, their slogan is ‘USING TOURISM TO CHANGE LIVES’. They say: Our ethical and educational Dharavi slum tours give visitors a unique glimpse into everyday life for many Mumbaikars while breaking down the negative stereotypes associated with slums. 80% of the profits from every tour are invested back into the community through the programs of our NGO, Reality Gives, and most of our guides are from the community.

Positive impacts of slum tourism

Slum tourism has some positives to it. It gives people an insight into how poverty can affect people – humans are curious by nature, and if you are not living in poverty yourself, or never have, then it can be hard to imagine what it is really like. Visiting a slum whilst on holiday is like opening a window to another life, however briefly. 

It is also a chance to provide an income to people living in slums, if the tour involves some sort of opportunity to purchase goods or donate money. And with some tours, as you can see from Reality Tours and Travel above, the booking cost goes into improving the community.

Negative impacts of slum tourism

Of course, there are negatives impacts associated with slum tourism too. The main one is that it treats those who live in slums as though they are in a zoo, dehumanising them so tourists can see what it’s like before swanning off back to their hotel and other luxuries. Some would go so far as to argue that they are a form of ‘human zoo‘. These tours portray poverty as something exotic, rather than a very real danger to the lives of the people impacted by it. It is also questionable how far the money trickles down. With people paying for organised tours, how sure can we be that real people are accessing the money?

The ethics of slum tourism

Slum tourism

Looking at the pros and cons it is clear that there is an ethical question surrounding slum tourism. People who live in poverty and live in slums are real people. We need to ask ourselves whether it is fair for them to be paraded around in front of us as part of an organised tour that we are paying a company to go on.

Some questions we should ask ourselves when looking to engage in slum tourism, courtesy of, are:

  • To what extent does slum tourism provide an income and positive visibility for people in deprived areas? 
  • Which stakeholders are involved in slum tourism and who profits most? 
  • How are guided tours organised or composed?  
  • What are the geographical scopes of slum-tourism and which place does it occupy in the new mobility system? 
  • Where does slum tourism fit in a globalised world of tourist consumption?

It is similar to visiting remote tribes, in a way, just as I explain in my article about the long neck tribe in Thailand. Tourists coming in from outside to view life in a slum through a western lens for a few minutes… does this paint a fair picture of slums?

Slum tourism destinations

There are various places around the world where slum tourism is prevalent. Here are some examples-

Slum tourism in South Africa

Slum tourism exists across South Africa. Here it is also known as township tourism – in SA, townships are the underdeveloped urban areas, generally populated by people of colour as a fall out from the Apartheid era. Apparently, around 25% of visitors to Cape Town engage in township tours. This city alone has around 40-50 township tour operators.

Slum tourism in Brazil

Slum tourism in Brazil equates to ‘favela tours’. Favelas are slums or shanty towns built on the outskirts of major cities across Brazil, and many people visit them for tourist purposes while on holiday in this beautiful country. Favelas are known to be dangerous areas. They are rife with crime, violence and drug dealing, but thousands of tourists every month visit these areas with curiosity.

Slum tourism in India

As mentioned above when I spoke about Reality Tours and Travel, India is a prime spot for slum tourism due to the high levels of poverty here. The film Slumdog Millionaire put Indian slums onto the screens of millions of people, many of whom became keen to see it for themselves on a trip to India. There are around 15,000 people visiting the Dharavi slum each year alone.

Slum tourism in Indonesia

Jakarta is home to a slum where families of 5 squeeze into ‘houses’ no bigger than the average western bathroom. They survive on pennies, and welcome tourists into their homes to see what it is like. Jakarta Hidden Tours is run by Ronnie. He’s a charity worker who donates half of his profits to the local community in an attempt to improve their lives.

Slum tourism in Africa

Across Africa there are poor and underdeveloped communities. Slums tend to exist in Kenya and Uganda, for the most part. AfricanTrails say:

Going on an Africa slum tour is a great way to see what life is like for the majority of residents in a specific African town or city. Visitors can see how people live and the work they carry out in order to provide for their families. Slum tours are not purely filled with misery, the towns often have vibrant communities with shops, schools and market stalls.

It is easy to forget that there are people living in these conditions, as it is not something you see every day, so for many, Africa slum tours are a real eye-opening experience. Visitors leave the area with the intention of donating to charities, helping those living in these places. Slum tours give the chance for tourists to interact with others from different backgrounds and see the true beauty of Africa and its people.

Slum tourism: Conclusion

To conclude, slum tourism occurs around the world, and has done since Victorian times in England. Back then, the aristocracy would visit the capital’s poorest areas for voyeuristic and/or philanthropic purposes. And still it continues. People are, of course, eager to see another way of life. Often they believe that they are helping, and visiting people at their lowest can be a great way to remind you that really, you don’t have it all that bad. The ethics are questionable, but there are definitely ways you can visit a slum without it being a negative thing.

Further reading

Top 10 dark tourism destinations (including WUHAN!)

Dark tourism explained: What, why and where

What is suicide tourism?

Medical tourism: What where and why