Poverty tourism, slum tourism or the industry of poorism – whichever label you give it, I have always been very uncomfortable with it. When it is hawked as a cultural learning exercise – I am not even sure what that is really supposed to mean – I can understand it to a point, but on the face of it, it’s exploitative, demeaning and misery-as-entertainment.
What does it essentially mean? Take a bus load of tourists, all eager to experience and learn about all facets of the country they are visiting – the good and the bad – away from their four-star hotels and pristine beaches, into the heart of a township, favela or slum of a developing country. The point being to give them a better understanding of the socio-economic divisions of that country. Is there not enough information out there available to better inform? I do not have to visit the slums of Mumbai to fully understand the dire poverty under which people live. All this education is done within a very limited time period of course. It can be a meal in a local restaurant serving local cuisine carefully adapted to suit the foreign palate; it always includes a walking tour, with photo opportunities with the unschooled local children, and often ends with a bus load of self-satisfied tourists armed with their newly-acquired bragging rights, who will start off dinner conversations months later with: “When I visited the favela…township…slum of [insert developing country of choice]…”.
|Photo source: Reuters|
South Africa did it in the 80s, as a means of educating tourists about apartheid, it continued during and well after the 2010 Soccer World Cup – taking curious tourists into its townships as part of the overall tourist experience . I don’t think France organized tours into its impoverished crime-ridden banlieus in 1998; and I am almost certain that South Korea and Japan were not as quick to showcase their less attractive sides to the curious tourist; I can’t say much for Germany either in 2006, but now Brazil is fine-tuning its poverty tourism in anticipation for the 2014 World Cup.
Proponents of this industry – yes it is an industry – argue that it encourages tourism to the marginalized parts of these countries; that it creates jobs and generates income; and that it builds a sense of worth amongst the slum inhabitants. The first two points I get – factor in the multiplier effect of the tourism revenue earned and theoretically a community should be better off. But the latter point? How does being curiously observed and photographed by tourists in one’s home, for the simple reason that one is poor build a sense of self worth? Tune in David Attenborough’s famous nature documentary voice overs on these tours and you’ll see my point.
I always wonder if the number of tourists that descend upon Paris and France in general, no matter what the season have been curious enough to want to visit the country’s less appealing sensitive urban zones (ZUS). Probably not, that would tarnish their ideal of the country’s well-burnished image. They sheepishly step over the homeless along the glitzy Champs-Elysées avenue , and I am certain they would not want to spend a morning ogling them in their natural habitat. Best leave that to the developing countries – let them showcase their own poverty and perpetuate that image of misery.