Slum tours: Should we let them continue?

It’s okay to tour a world attraction. It’s okay to explore Gettysburg, Jane Austen’s house and St. Paul’s Cathedral, because these places are meant to teach the tourists about history and culture. But when people start touring slums in Third World countries to observe poverty, is it okay to keep these tours going?

For the past decade, slum tours have become increasingly popular. In Dharavi, India, about three tours are conducted every day through Chris Way’s Reality Tours and Travel, founded in 2005. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, dozens of tourists come to the Rocinha slums on any given day through Marcelo Armstrong’s Favela Tour.

According to Mitu Sengupta of Third World Quarterly, director Danny Boyle created Slumdog Millionaire (2008) to promote awareness of poverty in Dharavi. But Sengupta and other critics of slum tourism say that these tours and films only fuel the stereotypes of poverty and exploit the slums for the sake of income.

But some managers have turned slum tourism into charity. Founder Chris Way of Reality Tours and Travel donates 80 percent of his company’s profits to the slum residents in India, including Mumbai and Delhi. According to Eric Weiner of The New York Times, other tours such as Armstrong’s Favela Tour and Fred Collom’s local tours of Mazatlán, Mexico, host slum tours to distribute food to slum residents and break away any negative stereotypes of the slums, such as the brutish slum dwellers seen in Slumdog Millionaire’s antagonists.

In this case, slum tours can be positive for societies, but what about those who say that slum tourism is “simply gawking” at the slum residents?

Moni Basu of CNN’s “Poverty tours: A learning experience or simply gawking?” said that in her tour of Paharganj in New Delhi, India, she felt that she was observing the slum residents as if they were animals in a human zoo. She said that although she felt fortunate to never live in such a dire situation, she felt that the tour walked too quickly through these peoples’ lives.

After scrolling through her pictures of the tour, I thought to myself, If I were in her shoes, seeing the garbage-heaped alleys and smelling the urine, how would those residents feel if I took snapshots of their lives and simply walked away?

Fortunately, many of these slum tours respect the residents. For instance, Basu’s tour of Paharganj and Armstrong’s tour of Rocinha, forbid photography from the tourists. Collom’s tour of Mazatlán allows the tourists to distribute sandwiches to the slum residents. “We see ourselves as a bridge to connect the tourists to the real world,” said Collom.

According to Weiner, the director of the International Center for Responsible Tourism in Leeds, England, Harold Goodwin, said, “Tourism is one of the few ways that you or I are ever going to understand what poverty means. To just kind of turn a blind eye and pretend the poverty doesn’t exist seems to me a very denial of our humanity.”

Testimonies from tourists seem to support slum tourism. In Weiner’s description, a New York lawyer named Rajika Bhasin said, “Honestly, I would say it was a life-changing experience,” regarding Rocinha. Regarding Dharavi, a U.K. tourist from Reality Tours and Travel said, “This has got to be the most eye-opening and fascinating tour I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world.”

Still other tourists felt overwhelmed or helpless when deciding to help the residents, according to Basu in her interaction with the Paharganj tourists.

There is no easy decision about this issue. I say that if slum tours help generate revenue for the residents—and the residents approve—then let the tours continue. “We really have a lot of support from the people,” said Krishna Pujari, co-founder of Reality Tours and Travel. In Reality Tours and Travel’s promotional video (as seen below), Pujari said that the company’s mission “is a quality education for underprivileged children.”

Asim Saikh, one of the local teachers in Reality Tour’s Community Centre, praised the company for helping fund Dharavi’s education programs. “Young people who join the course are now going for good jobs,” said Saikh. “The best part is, a lot of kids are continuing their education further.”

On the other hand, if the residents complain about the intrusion of the slum tours, or the rudeness from the tourists’ “gawking,” then let the governor or authority of that region talk with the tours’ manager to halt this enterprise.

Whatever the case, let the residents decide whether the slum tours should go on. If it does generate income, even if the tourists “gawk” at the residents—and the residents approve—then let the tours go on.

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