Slum Tourism – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Quick! Take a picture!

I once went to visit Kibera slum in Nairobi. Walking through the streets, I passed a group of guys dragging a heavy log through the mud. One of the men turned – he looked a bit drunk – and yelled out “hey, mzungu! You think we’re giraffes? Go to a safari park!” His friends laughed, my guide nervously pulled my arm and told me to move on. I felt extremely uncomfortable. The guy pulling the log was of course right. I was a ‘slum tourist’, paying to see areas of intense poverty.

Slum tourism has come under considerable intelligent criticism, including from Kennedy Odede and Jamal Osman. These critiques are eloquently summed up by the quote above; slum tourism turns people’s lives into safari parks. Critics claim it objectifies poverty, giving rich tourists an interesting experience but nothing back to the community.

I think that picture is too simplistic. In Kibera, I was not struck by the poverty and deprivation – but by the vibrancy, quality of infrastructure, and colour. It was a world away from the sterile, sewage-ridden mess that I’d imagined. I had no idea that there were rich areas of Kibera, with expensive churches and wealthy businessmen. I had no idea that you could buy iphones, get haircuts, and set up an internet connection there. At least personally, I think my slum tourism experience improved my understanding of Kibera. Moreover, I suspect the angry man I met was the exception rather than the rule. One study found that the single most common reaction from slum residents was apathy.

More broadly, I think one of the biggest risks facing places like Kenya (and the UK) is the increasing separation of rich and poor. The rich spend more time in wealthy ghettos, and have no reason to go to the poor areas. Asserting an ethical principle that rich people shouldn’t go to poor areas just reinforces this trend. Obviously a simple slum tourism experience is unlikely to radically change anyone’s worldview, but I think it is important that people make an attempt to move outside their normal comfortable circles.

Like anything, I think slum tourism can be a positive or negative influence, depending on how it is done. So here are some tips for anyone considering it:

  • Pick the organisation carefully. Go with an organisation with links to the local community. You should be taken round by someone from the slum, and at least some of the money should go back to the local community. This should happen directly as well as indirectly. For example, they should encourage you to shop locally, as well as using a percentage of your payment for community projects.
  • Don’t take photos. Many negative accounts of slum tourism focus on the distance that photographs put between the tourist and the subject. As Kennedy Odede says; “They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.” If you absolutely have to take photos, then ask permission first, and don’t single out the most stereotypical ‘slum-like’ view for your photograph.
  • Look for the beautiful aspects of slums. Ultimately, I think it’s your attitude that determines the impact of slum tourism. Slums aren’t one-dimensional collections of poverty and deprivation – but if that’s what you look for, that’s what you’ll find.
  • Interact with residents. It’s uncomfortable to interact with people when you’re a tourist, especially for us emotionally stunted English people. However, one of the key criticisms made by slum dwellers in this study was that tourists didn’t really talk with them. If you find it hard to start a conversation with someone on the street without sounding like an idiot (“So…what do you do?”) an easy way to start conversations is to buy small things (like water, sweets, or crisps) from local shops.

9 thoughts on “Slum Tourism – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. I think this advice is largely valid and also applies for visiting other places where ‘poor’ people live – eg. in the Pacific you might have an opportunity to visit a village where you will see plenty of poverty (in material terms) but they are not slums. Other advice:

    Do not encourage let alone ask for children from the school to sing a song or pose for photographs – it is more important that they learn maths

    Do not give sweets or crisps to children, it is junk. If you want to take a present for a community’s children, take something for the kindergarten or school that is more beneficial such as some colouring pencils or a football

    • I fully agree with you. I live in India and in Mumbai there is a slum colony called Dharavi which is also very popular. Most of the foreign tourists often visit there. Its not good as it reflects the bad aspects of the country.

  2. Yes to not taking photos without permission or a reason, althgough in my experience children will often ask to have their photo taken and get a kick out of seeing themselves on a digital camera. And a big yes to children not singing songs, they are children – not circus performers.

    However I would disagree with giving anything, whether it’s sweets from a local shop, colouring pencils or a football – it creates an expectation that visitors will always give and then disappointment when someone chooses not to. If you feel, as a slum visitor, that you need to give something in order to justify or feel better about your presence there, then perhaps you are visiting for the wrong reasons after all.

  3. I agree with the problem of increased inequality and segregation by wealth you refer to. And yet I can’t but disagree that slum tourism can be part of the solution. At the very best, it will be a not terribly harmful way to raise funds for a community. But even then I’m uncomfortable with the idea of poverty as a tourist attraction. If the aim is to create understanding, I think there are better ways to go about it. Starting with volunteering in one’s respective country. But failing that, volunteering abroad. Voluntourism, while not particularly good, is surely better than simple tourism?

    Do you think a bus-full of your stereotypical snap-happy, huge camera wielding Japanese tourist would be out of place as tourists in the homeless shelters and soup kitchens of western countries? And even if the homeless shelters were to tolerate these tourist incursions that brought much needed cash, do you think the people making use of the shelters would welcome the presence of the tourists? In any case, in your mind, do these tourists gain much from the experience, other than cool photos to share on social media?

    Finally, regarding your recommendations, I was unsure with yours on interacting with locals: I agree with the premise, but I disagree with the specifics. I don’t think interactions need to be monetary. And in the case of tourism, I worry about the risk of sustainability, not to mention of the myriad pernicious effects on the community and local economy. After all, look at how different poverty looks and feels in tourist versus non tourist places. A world where we create a demand for poverty is a depressing one indeed.

  4. Thanks to all the commenters! Tess and Stu, you both raise important points. Since Tess was talking about giving to schools (rather than people) I don’t really see the harm of giving pens or a football – but Stu raises valid concerns.

    Joe, I agree that volunteering or voluntourism are better ways to understand other cultures – but the reality is that not everyone is able (or willing) to dedicate several weeks of their life to it. So I don’t think that it is a problem that there are better ways to go about creating understanding – there are lots of different ways, and there is room for all of them.

    I agree interactions don’t need to be monetary, but it’s often a good place to start. Sustainability and negative effects are an issue – but also true for almost any income generation activity.

    I find your second point the most powerful. I suppose ultimately I don’t class Kibera in the same place as a homeless shelter or soup kitchen in western countries. Kibera is a place with millions of inhabitants, sub-cultures, rich and poor, and a huge economy. So ‘slum tourism’ doesn’t seem nearly as intrusive as the examples you raise. What do others think?

  5. Initially I was reluctant, but a ‘tourist’ trip to Rosinha, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, helped me to better understand. I thought it would feel almost voyeuristic but actually the tours had been set up in a way that it didn’t feel that way at all. I was genuinely surprised. Yes there were lots of things for sale during the tour – at one point we stopped for refreshments at the tour guides brother’s shop, then a group of kids played their drums for us and we were expected to give them coins, then we ended up in an art gallery where we were encouraged to buy posters and gift cards. But I quickly learnt that favelas aren’t hell holes, that they have barbers, internet cafes and bars just like my hometown. However, they struggle through without any public services such as water, sewers, electricity, post, roads or schools. I left Rosinha with a better understanding of what would make a difference to it’s citizens – who were rightly proud of what they had built. Not drug raids, but recognition, respect and a voice as real citizens.

  6. I think it is demeaning of people living in these circumstances. Try Belair or the Bronx the next time and see if they like it. They might not be so tolerant of the intrusion.

  7. Pingback: Tourism… – anth102spring2016

  8. Pingback: Community Based Tourism | AID LEAP

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