Inside the Controversial World of Slum Tourism

People have toured the world’s most marginalized, impoverished districts for over a century.

HUNDREDS OF SHANTY towns line the riverbanks, train tracks, and garbage dumps in the Filipino capital—the most jammed-packed areas in one of the world’s most densely populated cities. Around a quarter of its 12 million people are considered “informal settlers.”

Manila is starkly representative of a global problem. According to the United Nations, about a quarter of the world’s urban population lives in slums—and this figure is rising fast.

Rich cultural heritage brings visitors to Manila, but some feel compelled to leave the safety of the historic center sites to get a glimpse of the city’s inequality. Tour operators in the Philippines—as well as places like Brazil and India—have responded by offering “slum tours” that take outsiders through their most impoverished, marginalized districts.

Slum tourism sparks considerable debate around an uncomfortable moral dilemma. No matter what you call it—slum tours, reality tours, adventure tourism, poverty tourism—many consider the practice little more than slack-jawed privileged people gawking at those less fortunate. Others argue they raise awareness and provide numerous examples of giving back to the local communities. Should tourists simply keep their eyes shut?

Some tourists are curious to leave the must-see sites to better understand the reality facing a city. Slum tours guide people through the world's most marginalized communities, as seen here in Manila. PHOTOGRAPH BY HANNAH REYES MORALES

Rich cultural heritage brings visitors to Manila, but some feel compelled to leave the safety of the historic center sites to get a glimpse of the city’s inequality. PHOTOGRAPH BY HANNAH REYES MORALES

Slumming For Centuries

Slum tourism is not a new phenomenon, although much has changed since its beginning. “Slumming” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1860s, meaning “to go into, or frequent, slums for discreditable purposes; to saunter about, with a suspicion, perhaps, of immoral pursuits.” In September 1884, the New York Times published an article about the latest trend in leisure activities that arrived from across the pond, “‘Slumming’ will become a form of fashionable dissipation this winter among our Belles, as our foreign cousins will always be ready to lead the way.”

Usually under the pretense of charity and sometimes with a police escort, rich Londoners began braving the city’s ill-reputed East End beginning around 1840. This new form of amusement arrived to New York City from wealthy British tourists eager to compare slums abroad to those back home. Spreading across the coast to San Francisco, the practice creeped into city guide books. Groups wandered through neighborhoods like the Bowery or Five Points in New York to peer into brothels, saloons, and opium dens.

Visitors could hardly believe their eyes, and justifiably so. “I don’t think an opium den would have welcomed, or allowed access to, slummers to come through if they weren’t there to smoke themselves,” Chad Heap writes in his book Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885–1940. Recognizing the business opportunity, outsiders cashed in on the curiosity by hiring actors to play the part of addicts or gang members to stage shoot-’em-ups in the streets. After all, no one wanted the slum tourists to demand a refund or go home disappointed.

Smokey Tours does not allow participants to take photos, but this policy proves difficult to enforce. PHOTOGRAPH BY HANNAH REYES MORALES

Children play in the Baseco neighborhood of Tondo. PHOTOGRAPH BY HANNAH REYES MORALES

The city of San Francisco eventually banned such mockery of the poor, the New York Times reported in 1909: “This is a heavy blow to Chinatown guides, who have collected a fee of two dollars each. The opium smokers, gamblers, blind paupers, singing children, and other curiosities were all hired.”

Tours also brought positive results, as Professor of History Seth Koven highlights in his research of slumming in Victorian London. Oxford and Cambridge Universities opened study centers in the late 19th-century to inform social policy, which was only possible by seeing the underprivileged neighborhoods firsthand.

Popularity waned after World War II with the creation of welfare and social housing—then rose again in the 1980s and 1990s as those state provisions declined and labor demands increased.

Presenting Poverty

Plastic arrives from all over India to the dark alleys and corrugated shacks of Dharavi in Mumbai—the second-largest slum on the continent of Asia (after Orangi Town in Pakistan) and third-largest slum in the world. Ushered around by the company Reality Tour and Travel, tourists see a thriving recycling industry which employs around ten thousand to melt, reshape, and mould discarded plastic. They stop to watch the dhobiwallahs, or washermen, scrub sheets from the city’s hospitals and hotels in an open-air laundry area.

In a TripAdvisor review, one recent participant from Virginia appreciated the focus on community. “It was great to hear about the economy, education and livelihood of the residents,” she writes. “The tour group doesn't allow photography or shopping which I think is really important. It didn't feel exploitative, it felt educational.”

One traveler from London commented on the extremity of the scene. "Had to stop after about 20 minutes into it due to the overbearing nature of the surroundings. The tour is not for the faint hearted. I would've liked a few more disclaimers on the website to warn us about the nature of it." Another guest from the United Kingdom expressed disappointment over the so-called family meal. “This was in the home of one of the guides and, whilst his mum made lunch a delicious meal that we ate in her house, she didn’t eat with us so it wasn’t really what I had expected from a family lunch (or the photos promoting such on the website).”

Smokey Tours enters the Manila North Cemetery, inhabited by some of Manila's poorest people. PHOTOGRAPH BY HANNAH REYES MORALES

Thousands live among the dead with tombs as beds, prefering the quiet to the crowds of the sprawling shanty towns around the city. PHOTOGRAPH BY HANNAH REYES MORALES

Children jump from grave to grave in the city’s largest cemetery. PHOTOGRAPH BY HANNAH REYES MORALES

Reality Tours hopes to challenge the stereotypical perception of slums as despairing places inhabited by hopeless people. The tour presented slum residents as productive and hardworking, but also content and happy. Analyzing more than 230 reviews of Reality Tour and Travel in her study, Dr. Melissa Nisbett of King’s College London realized that for many Dharavi visitors, poverty was practically invisible. “As the reviews show, poverty was ignored, denied, overlooked and romanticized, but moreover, it was depoliticized.” Without discussing the reason the slum existed, the tour decontextualized the plight of the poor and seemed only to empower the wrong people–the privileged, western, middle class visitors.

With good intentions, the company states that 80 percent of the profits benefit the community through the efforts of its NGO that works to provide access to healthcare, organize educational programs, and more. Co-founder Chris Way spoke to National Geographic after his company surged in popularity from the sleeper hit Slumdog Millionaire. “We do try and be as transparent as possible on our website, which does allay many people’s fears.” Way personally refuses a salary for his work.

No Two Cities Alike

The main question should be: Is poverty the central reason to visit?

Other cities take different approaches to slum tourism. In the early 1990s, when black South Africans began offering tours of their townships—the marginalized, racially-segregated areas where they were forced to live—to help raise global awareness of rampant human rights violations. Rather than exploitation inflicted by outsiders, local communities embraced slum tourism as a vehicle to take matters of their traditionally neglected neighborhoods into their own hands.

Some free tours of favelas in Rio de Janeiro provided an accessible option to the crowds that infiltrated the city during the World Cup and Summer Olympics, while most companies continue to charge. Tour manager Eduardo Marques of Brazilian Expeditions explains how their authenticity stands out, “We work with some local guides or freelancers, and during the tour we stop in local small business plus [offer] capoeira presentations that [support] the locals in the favela. We do not hide any info from our visitors. The real life is presented to the visitors.”

Smokey Tours in Manila connected tourists with the reality facing inhabitants of a city landfill in Tondo (until 2014 when it closed) to tell their stories. Now the company tours around Baseco near the port, located in the same crowded district and known for its grassroots activism. Locally-based photographer Hannah Reyes Morales documented her experience walking with the group on assignment for National Geographic Travel. “I had permission to photograph this tour from both the operator and community officials, but the tour itself had a no photography policy for the tourists.” With the policy difficult to enforce, some guests secretly snapped photos on their. “I observed how differently tourists processed what they were seeing in the tour. There were those who were respectful of their surroundings, and those who were less so.”

All About Intention

Despite sincere attempts by tour operators to mitigate offense and give back to locals, the impact of slum tourism stays isolated. Ghettoized communities remain woven into the fabric of major cities around the world, each with their individual political, historical, and economic concerns that cannot be generalized. Similarly, the motivations behind the tourism inside them are as diverse as the tour participants themselves. For all participants involved, operators or guests, individual intentions matter most.

The Baseco neighborhood is located on the Pasig river near the city port, but lacks access to clean drinking water. PHOTOGRAPH BY HANNAH REYES MORALES

Better connections between cities allow more people to travel than ever before, with numbers of international tourists growing quickly every year. While prosperity and quality of life have increased in many cities, so has inequality. As travelers increasingly seek unique experiences that promise authentic experiences in previously off-limits places, access through tours helps put some areas on the map.

Travel connects people that would otherwise not meet, then provides potential to share meaningful stories with others back home. Dr. Fabian Frenzel, who studies tourism of urban poverty at the University of Leicester, points out that one of the key disadvantages of poverty is a lack of recognition and voice. “If you want to tell a story, you need an audience, and tourism provides that audience.” Frenzel argues that even taking the most commodifying tour is better than ignoring that inequality completely.

For the long-term future of these communities, the complex economic, legal, and political issues must be addressed holistically by reorganizing the distribution of resources. While illuminating the issue on a small scale, slum tourism is not a sufficient answer to a growing global problem.

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