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Slum tourism and its discontents

By Sonia Tsuruoka

This is how rich, curious Westerners fritter away the summer months: not yachting along the Côte d’Azur or strolling arm-in-arm through Mediterranean villas, but navigating the hectic, crime-ridden slums of Kibera, Dharavi, and Rocinha in an assortment of developing countries like South Africa, India, and Brazil. “Slum tourism,” or the recreational visiting of impoverished, urban communities, is curiously gaining traction as a form of foreign leisure, raising questions of intent and provoking fiery discourse on the ethics of the popularly embraced social practice. Is “slumming,” as its advocates insist, a fruitful exercise in cultural immersion, fostering awareness, empathy, and potential action? Or is it a voyeuristic — and fundamentally invasive — enterprise that exoticizes slum residents like caged animals in a zoological exhibition?

Photo by Chico.Ferreira, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.
Photo by Chico.Ferreira, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

“How the other half lives” has been a topic of perverse fascination for the upper and middle-classes, even prior to Jacob Riis’ groundbreaking photojournalistic study of Manhattan’s tenement- and sweatshop-ridden Lower East Side in 1890. Consider the loaded, etymological origins of the word slumming, and its earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884. Around this time hordes of blue-blooded Londoners — leaving their lavish abodes in Mayfair and Belgravia — were rumored to flood London’s squalid East End for everything from amusement to philanthropy. This “fashionable London Mania” found its way from Victorian-era England to the streets of New York City, as wealthy foreigners increasingly engaged in “slumming parties,” which typically entailed “a tour of the Bowery winding up with a visit to an opium joint or Harry Hill’s.” A recognizable tension between slumming as reform enterprise and twisted voyeurism emerged, blurring the boundaries between slum tourism as a form of entertainment for the privileged class and a spirited call to action for well-intentioned missionaries, social activists, politicians, journalists, and philanthropists.

Twentieth-century innovations in transportation and technology, coinciding with an emergent sense of internationalism, changed the scope — but not the substance — of slumming as modern practice. Gone were the logistical difficulties of accessing far-flung destinations like Mumbai and Soweto. Foreign countries, once considered terra incognita to the average Joe, were now little more than an e-reservation away. Cheaper, faster transportation methods gave rise to an entirely new generation of globe-trotters, in what John Urry might call a massive “reconfiguration” of the “tourist gaze.” International tourist arrivals surpassed 1 billion for the first time in history last year and are expected to show unprecedented growth in 2013. Even more momentous is the cultural zeitgeist motivating much of these predominantly North American and European travelers. Just as 19th century writers of modernist literature advanced the perspective of the “common individual” in masterpieces like Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, 21st century artists have similarly rendered the heart-wrenching plights of “real people,” except this time their gaze is global. Slumdog Millionaire’s rags-to-riches narrative brought thousands to Mumbai, resulting in 25% increase in business after its release, just as the Academy-Award-nominated City of God attracted hordes of tourists to Rio de Janeiro’s impoverished favelas.

From township tours in post-Apartheid South Africa to hutong tours in China, the relation of the “average Westerner” to the “rest of the world” has changed in the wake of changing cultural, technological, and global dynamics. By physically extracting themselves from their comfort zone and immersing themselves in foreign slum life, Western tourists seem, in one sense, to transgress pre-conceived social, economic, political, and even racial boundaries. What might otherwise appear alien or otherworldly to the Western tourist becomes not only familiar but humanly recognizable through the activity of slumming. What might otherwise appear as a “foreign problem” seems much closer to home than previously imagined. Bridging the geographical gulf between the haves and have-nots, some scholars argue, is the first stage in narrowing the figurative gulf of understanding between the developed and developing worlds.

Photo by Colin Crowley, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.
Photo by Colin Crowley, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

Yet there is something parasitic — and even vaguely sinister — about the relation of the slum tourist to the slum-dweller. What if their worlds do not intersect at all, but parallel each other? And what if such an experience as a whole is more exploitative than equalizing? Consider Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia and its star-studded cinematic adaptation as illustrations of slum tourism’s most disconcerting implications. Endeavoring to “explore one aspect of myself set against the backdrop of [three countries],” Gilbert embarks on a pre-paid intercontinental getaway, whisking herself from the sprawling streets of Rome to a four-month meditation in a Guru’s ashram near Mumbai and a mountainside retreat in Ubud, Bali. Though it reads as a stylish “travel-brochure paradise,” the memoir “never loses the sour whiff of unexamined first-world privilege,” attributing a kind of parasitism to the jet-setting Western tourist. Even as Gilbert vividly experiences the world-at-large, she does so at a philosophical remove, from the comfort of an imperceptible vantage point. Navigating the outer limits as a third-party observer, she extracts the material and immaterial from their cultural contexts, assembling her own sampler plate of foreign scenery as she moves from one place to the next. Of particular interest is the impartiality with which Gilbert regards her surroundings: more consumptive than immersive, and exclusively in service of her own introspection, rather than in the interest of penetrating a foreign milieu.

Like Gilbert, the Western tourist regards the developing world from a vantage point: only ever through tinted shades, half-cracked windows, and muted camera shutters. Even at the moment of their physical meeting, such experiential barriers permanently relegate the tourist and the slum-dweller to parallel worlds, preserving rather than narrowing the gulf of understanding between the developed and developing worlds. An afternoon of slumming becomes something to be added to the tourist’s catalog of foreign travels and “real-world” parables, a fleeting encounter “experienced momentarily” but “escaped from permanently.” Of course, as its proponents contend, slum tourism can provide a sympathetic counter-narrative for the criminalized poor, as “crime is rarely blamed upon poverty…[and] rather lumped together with everything ‘bad’ – evil qua evil.” While it refutes sensationalized news reports of urban communities, however, it departs from its original premise: what it intended to humanize, it has obscenely commoditized. No wonder its critics liken slum tourism to “gazing at people in poverty as if they were animals in a zoo,” considering unaddressed questions of residential privacy and consent. One woman in an South African township, observing a motor coach packed with tourists, confided in one researcher that she felt as if she were “treat[ed] like an animal, as if they’re on safari.”

Of course, it’s arguable that the newfound visibility of marginal populations to mainstream society, made possible by slum tourist activity, could advance a powerful context for social empowerment, economic improvement, political incorporation, and systemic change. These benefits, both material and immaterial, can be difficult to gauge due to the complexity of social relationships within struggling communities, though slumming in many cases provides ample opportunities for the purchase of locally-produced goods and encourages donations to charitable organizations, local or otherwise. A number of tour companies, like the Dharavi-based Reality Tours and Travel, donate as much as 80% of their profits to local organizations and charities — though it is presently unclear whether such a corporate policy is the exception or the rule. Rather, we should assess slum residents’ quality of life by addressing less quantitative factors, including the distribution of wealth, overall access to state resources, and the sustainability of their economic framework as a whole. All this cautions against regarding slum tourism as a means to a charitable end, for access to industry profits seems overwhelmingly uneven. “If [tour operators] say they help the poor, tell them to come and talk to us,” challenged one community association president in Rocinha. “What we have here is a lot of bad intentioned people who come here to exploit Rocinha, put the money in their pockets and walk away.”

A French company is slated to complete the construction of a 300 million dollar cable-car system over Rocinha that will provide “panoramic views of the sprawling slum and the Atlantic beyond,” but not without passionate objection from community associations. The project, mirrored after the sky-high transportation system built over Complexo do Alemão in 2011, serves as a real-word metaphor for the dismal costs of slum tourism. “The focus is on tourism, not residents,” says Alan Brum, an NGO director for Raizes em Movimento (Roots in Movement), later adding that “the cable car [in Alemão] only serves 7% of the population of around 140,000 people.” Both projects, despite being lavished with high praise, illustrate  the consequences of placing profits over people. For slum communities, education and health resources, as well as those for basic sanitation and garbage collection, will remain few and far between as governmental funds dwindle. Tourists, on the other hand, will be able to “see Rocinha from above without putting their feet on the ground.”

Sonia Tsuruoka is a social media intern for the Oxford University Press, and an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including Slate Magazine and the JHU News-Letter.

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Recent Comments

  1. Evelise Freitas

    Dear Sonia,
    Thank you for the insightful article. I tried to find your email address but was unsuccessful. I have a comment, please try to reference the authors whose work your writing is based on. For example, the following quotes are not referenced and they are part of my article for Tourism Concern: “If [tour operators] say they help the poor, tell them to come and talk to us,”, “What we have here is a lot of bad intentioned people who come here to exploit Rocinha, put the money in their pockets and walk away.” I would appreciate if you could update your article with the correct references.
    Many thanks.
    Best wishes,
    Evelise Freitas

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