What to Do About the “Slum Tours” Controversy

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The growing popularity of “slum tours” has prompted media coverage and debates.  We did a post, “Poverty Tours: Good or Bad?” exploring some of the questions last July.

Topics about the poor or disadvantaged in relations to the wealthy and advantaged often trigger heated opinions. Debate is good because it brings issues to the forefront and is productive if the underlying desire is for betterment rather than being right.

Critics of slum tours have long argued that tourists visiting the slums exploit and violate the dignity of slum dwellers. While supporters of these tours say that exposure to the “experience” can motivate people from more privileged backgrounds to “do some good” and spark change. It’s complicated. Both sides have valid and compelling arguments. As long as there is demand for slum tours, there will be suppliers. We also know those who see themselves as protectors of the poor and disadvantaged will not remain quiet…nor should they.

So what are some concrete things tour companies and travelers can do to think through the implications and ways to minimize offending local people and culture? For starters:

  • Educating travelers about the issues facing the people in the area you’re visiting;
  • Understanding their culture;
  • Giving back to the community;
  • Facilitating cross-cultural understanding;
  • Fostering longer-term relationships with the community;
  • Advancing social issues.

One thing the WSJ writer Robert Frank reminded us on a recent post, “Slum Tours for the Wealthy Come Under Scrutiny,” is that “so far, the debate has been fueled by emotion and politics, with little research.” That may change.

A researcher from the University of the West of England’s Bristol Business School is about to do a study of the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro to understand why the tourists go, and what impact the tours have on the slums. He will interview tour operators, go on tours, and talk with travelers as well as the people living in the slums. “I want to find out how the people living in the Favelas feel about the tourism and the extent of their involvement in the tours,” said the researcher, Fabian Frenzel. “I want to find out what the tour operators put back and how the experience motivates the travellers to become involved in social change after their trip. Does slum tourism turn the travellers into better people? Is the experience truly life changing?”

While Frank made a few keen observations in his article, we disagree with his characterization that philanthropic travel is “slum tourism.” Philanthropic travel is so much more than seeing poverty-stricken areas of the world, see our definition in our Traveler’s Philanthropy article.

Finally, the interesting thing about critiques is that they can serve as a form of self-regulation for an industry. But critics too have to be held in check, otherwise careless or misleading statements can damage or limit the advancement of good works. What’s missed in these debates is that some travel companies are operating under best practice principles.

We believe that a productive dialogue helps all parties involved

Tell us what you think or if you know of any travel company that’s doing good things in impoverished communities, let us know in our Comment section below.

photo credit: jakob montrasio

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