Tourists have money, and they often bring their money to places that desperately need it. Even when they visit sites as destitute as the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, the opportunity exists for the local community to profit from the presence of tourists if the visitors' money finds its way into the hands of those who need it most.
But does it?
That question has been asked with increasing frequency in recent years as a result of the growing popularity of "poorism," a somewhat derogatory label applied to slum tours or other types of outings that bring visitors into extremely impoverished areas of the world. Are the residents of these areas actually benefiting from such excursions, or do these tours merely pile one more layer of pain atop the aggregate suffering of the world's poor?
To some extent, the answer lies not just in the economic repercussions of the tour but on the motivation behind it.
"It's a matter of what the relationship is when you make that visit," said Harold Goodwin, professor at the International Centre for Responsible Tourism. "If it's purely voyeuristic, if all you're doing is going to look at the poor and take photographs, that seems to me to be exploitative and unacceptable."
On the other hand, Goodwin added, "Not to be exploited, not to be economically engaged, not to have the opportunity to earn from these things is far worse."
Poorism traces its roots to the mid-1980s, when a company called Favela Tour began offering walking tours of the notorious slum neighborhoods of Rio and Face to Face Tours started guiding the curious through Soweto, then an all-black township at the southwestern edge of Johannesburg, South Africa. (Soweto was annexed to Johannesburg in 2002.) More than 20 years later, Jimmy Ntintili, founder of Face to Face, claims to have guided more than a million people through Soweto.
Over time, as the number of tours of the South African townships around Johannesburg and Cape Town has continued to expand, more and more operators have been getting into the poorism business, organizing tours of areas that range from the Kibera slums of Nairobi to the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, India.
Salaam Baalak Trust in India, for example, offers guided walks through the inner city of Paharganj and the New Delhi railway station to observe the lives of street children. Vineyard Ministries in Mazatlan, Mexico, offers a tour in which participants can bring sandwiches to feed scroungers at a local landfill.
But Goodwin believes that while many of these tours seem to have a similar objective on the surface -- to show people of affluence what life is like for those who live in squalor -- it's what lies beneath the tours that really makes a difference.
Goodwin was a pioneer of the concept of "pro-poor tourism," a concept he says can apply to the slum tours if they are organized and managed effectively. "The idea is if you're going to visit a destination, it's your responsibility to try to make sure that the money you spend there benefits people in that destination, in that local community," he said.
The increased interest and participation in this up-close-and-personal type of touring can perhaps be attributed to a larger trend in tourism: the desire of travelers to avoid the artificiality of man-made resorts and plastic paradises and instead seek out the unfamiliar real world.
Whether it's a slum tour, working with a community to help build a school or doing a home stay with a local family, tourists are exhibiting greater interest in engaging more intimately with the communities they visit.
Their quest, said David Clemmons, founder of Voluntourism.org, is not entertainment in the traditional sense but authenticity and engagement.
"With voluntourism, with slum tours, with all these things coming into the market space now, they're starting to take the veneer off the destination and let people see it for what it really is," Clemmons said. "And what we're discovering is people like it more. It feels more authentic. They can really connect to the destination in a deeper way."
But critics see a home stay or a volunteer project as being vastly different than a walking tour through a shantytown. Among them is Bruce Poon Tip, CEO of Canadian operator GAP Adventures, which offers volunteer-oriented trips as well as journeys that include home stays with local families.
"Certainly people are interested in finding out more about the real, un-touristy side of any destination," said Poon Tip. But he added: "When you're volunteering, you're being of assistance, giving back to the community. When you're taking a tour, there's something kind of odd about it, looking at disadvantaged people for your own entertainment."
He said that after the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 225,000 people across Asia, GAP Adventures got a lucrative offer to take 200 people to see the devastation.
"It was a very odd and macabre request," said Poon Tip. He turned down the opportunity because "it's just not something that we're comfortable offering as an experience for people."
But from the point of view of slum-tour operators like James Asudi, general manager of Nairobi-based Victoria Safaris, guiding people through an underprivileged area is a legitimate way to fight the poverty they see all around them.
"The premise of a slum-tour operation," Asudi wrote in an e-mail, "is to create awareness of the existence of the slums and the less privileged poor families who live in the slums, with an intention of slum upgrading and consequently total eradication through tourism."
Victoria Safaris, in addition to offering traditional safaris, nature trips and city tours throughout Kenya, offers a walking tour through the Kibera, Korokocho, Mukuru and Mathare slums of Nairobi, at $50 for a half day or $100 for a full day.
"Most if not all tourists into Kenya come for wildlife safaris and beach hotel tours, neglecting the populace," Asudi wrote. He added that when tourists take a slum tour in Nairobi they have an opportunity to see people "who live in Kenya without proper housing and sanitation, while tourism revenue leads as the highest revenue earner for the government."
Chris Way, owner and general manager of Mumbai-based Reality Tours and Travel, makes a similar argument. He said his tour of Dharavi showed tourists a part of Mumbai where 55% of people in the city live. (For more, see Richard Turen's interview with Way, "To hell and back for $6 and change.")
"It's up to the individual to decide how it affects them," Way wrote in an e-mail. "For some, they are amazed by the recycling plants; for others they find it a very humbling experience, amazed how people are so productive and apparently happy with very little material possessions."
While slum tours and touring through impoverished communities can undoubtedly be an eye-opening experience for the tourist, the concern most often voiced is whether the local residents have anything to gain. Most slum-tour operators claim to give back to the community in some way.
Reality Tours and Travel said that 80% of profits go to a nongovernmental organization that "does good work for the poorer communities of Mumbai."
Victoria Safaris said it hands over the profits from its slum tours to the tourists to hand over to the poor.
Salaam Baalak Trust, a nonprofit, said all proceeds go directly to the trust to create more opportunities for street children.
But Goodwin remains skeptical. If operators claim to be putting money toward a certain community project, "you should expect to see that project and be very suspicious if somebody says they're putting back a portion of the profit," he said.
As is the case with many charities, there is no official monitoring of these smaller operators to find out if they are truly giving back to the community. Even so, tourists have opportunities to give, regardless of the operator's motives, when they engage with the local residents directly. During those moments, they can purchase crafts, food and beverages directly from the people who most need financial support. Or, if they visit a school or medical facility, they can communicate with the administrative staff about donating goods or money directly to the institution.
The long view
Probably the most serious concern about the future of slum tours is sustainability. Ginger Smith, academic chair at New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management, said that while a group of tourists coming through a certain slum once a week can potentially provide a small, steady revenue stream for locals or for a critical institution like a school or medical facility, slum tours, as they stand right now, are not sustainable.
"You can't just go in," Smith said. "You have to engage the whole community and make them part of it. It is a commitment that takes time, and it's ongoing."
Moreover, it takes responsible operators and organizations to oversee an operation properly to ensure that each individual trip is contributing to a larger whole, to longer-term progress.
Voluntourism.org's Clemmons believes that ultimately it's impossible to really gauge all the benefit.
"Is it something that's sustainable?" Clemmons asked. "Well, we don't know. We don't know if one of the people that goes on one of these trips doesn't decide to come back later on and help build a school." On the other hand, he said, to claim that poorism "is going to change the course of people's lives and help them exit poverty ... it's ludicrous to even believe that that would be the case. But certainly, there are those folks out there that have that stance and say, 'It's not sustainable, so why do you do it in the first place?'"
The catch-22 is that if tourists don't venture into impoverished areas, those areas will not have access to tourism dollars, but as they do tour these areas, opportunities for exploitation present themselves.
"It's part of a broad trend in travel to having a more intimate experience, and absolutely, the trend is entirely positive," said Goodwin. "But if it's not managed, my view would be that generally it will become very exploitative."
To contact reporter Michelle Baran, send e-mail to [email protected].