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Slum Tours: Real or Real Tacky? [National Geographic]

In World News on February 19, 2010 at 9:37 pm

An Indian boy surveys a yard paved with drying clay bowls. Photo credit: Jonas Bendiksen

The Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire has made the world’s poor urban districts a popular tourist destination. Is it supportive or exploitive? National Geographic Traveler takes a look.

There was a time when most travelers tried to avoid the dicey parts of town. But an increasing number are now seeking them out on so-called reality tours. From Rio’s favelas to Mumbai’s Dharavi slum to Nairobi’s Mukuru district, the trend is gaining steam as the latest frontier in travel. The phenomenon shows no sign of waning as more travelers rethink indulgent vacations in favor of more meaningful travel experiences. It’s partially a byproduct of the global economic crisis. Another, sadly, is that the ranks of the poor are growing.

Favela tours were a hard sell when Marcelo Armstrong introduced them in 1992; today, he and his seven guides average about 800 customers a month. In Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, Reality Tours and Travel co-founder Chris Way gives some five walking tours a day in peak season, up from two a week three years ago (although numbers dropped somewhat immediately following last November’s attacks in Mumbai).

Many who have signed on have found the experience enriching. “I got the sense of being in the real Rio, not the tourists’ Rio,” said Nicholas Wolaver of his four-hour tour, which included talking to favela residents. Many travelers say reality tours tackle head-on the economic disparities between travelers and locals that often leave an uneasy feeling in those who travel to developing countries.

What may be an enriching experience to some, however, is deeply unsettling to others. Critics argue that some tours can be exploitive, where well-fed tourists gawk at the less fortunate. “We seem to feel the need to go anywhere, whether it’s slums or the top of Mount Everest, as long as we can pay the fee,” says David Fennell, professor of tourism and environment at Brock University in Ontario. But proponents claim they offer opportunities for cultural exchange and a chance for the disenfranchised to benefit from the tourist dollar through entrepreneurship. So, where exactly does a thoughtful traveler draw the line? Is slum tourism—or poorism, as it’s sometimes called—a means of authentic travel or a form of voyeurism?

Choose the right kind of tour, says Harold Goodwin, director of theInternational Centre for Responsible Tourism at England’s Leeds Metropolitan University. Some tours are blatant in their disregard for the inhabitants. He points to an experience he had while visiting a woman in a township in South Africa: As he was leaving, a motor coach stopped outside the woman’s home; it was packed with tourists snapping photos through the windows of the idling bus.” She said, ‘They treat me like an animal, as if they’re on safari.’ ”

Alternatively, travelers can visit a South African township in a bike or a Volkswagen Combi—the sort of vehicle typically used there and move at eye-level with people in the community, visiting restaurants and spending money on handicrafts. “One is voyeurism and one is seeking to understand how people live differently in the contemporary world,” explains Goodwin. “That’s much more of an exchange.”

Travelers should also look for tour operators who are deeply involved in the community. Way, of Reality Tours, plans to donate 80 percent of his profit—once he makes one—to local aid groups. In the meantime, he’s already built a community center in Dharavi. “People will rightly be skeptical, but we try to be as transparent as possible.” He says he limits his tours to six people and has a strict no-camera policy. “The reaction from the people in the area is either indifferent or they are genuinely happy to see the tourists.” In some cases, it’s the traveler who ends up giving back to the community. After Micato Safaris’ clients visit Nairobi’s Mukuru slum in Kenya, many are moved to sponsor a local child’s education; one was so inspired by his visit that he raised enough money to build a community center there.

Why the urge to nose our way into the lives of the poor? Armstrong thinks it’s only natural to crave a better understanding of your surroundings. His idea for the favela tours was hatched when he worked for a hotel in Senegal and was curious to learn more about the country himself. “I was disturbed by so many guests going to the hotel only to relax on the beach or play golf, without any interest to actually know a bit of Africa.” David Marek, founder of Ker & Downey, says his company offers a tour of Cape Town’s District Six resettlement area as an option in one of its South Africa itineraries because it’s a part of the country’s heritage. “It may be a dark spot, but South Africa is full of those so you can’t overlook them.”

There’s another point. “The economically poor are not necessarily culturally poor, and that’s one reason people are interested in them,” says Goodwin. “Many have rich traditions of music and dance and strong social structures.” Out of the favelas, for instance, emerges a new sound that fuses hip hop and traditional Brazilian music.

It’s also a chance for interaction with locals, something more travelers prize above passive sightseeing. In fact, many safari clients who stop in Mukuru say it was the highlight of their trip. “I hear that time and again,” says Micato’s AmericaShare founder Lorna MacLeod, “It all comes down to the human connection.”

Good Advice: The Right Way to Slum It

Find out how a tour works and ask yourself how you would feel if you were on the other end of the process. Most people have good instincts they can rely on.

What is the maximum size of the group? How will we be traveling? How much interaction with the residents can we expect? How do the residents benefit from the tour? How much of the tour cost is reinvested in the community?

Examples include Favela Tours, Rio, $30; Beauty’s Ghetto Bus Tour, Chicago, $20; Micato’s AmericaShare program, Nairobi, free for safari clients; Reality Tours & Travel, Mumbai, from $10.

Read more from National Geographic

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