“In 2014, over one million tourists visited a township, a favela, a barrio or a slum”: on the rise of slum tourism

Rio de Janiero's Cantagalo favela. Image: Getty.

This is an extract from the introduction to “Slumming It: The Tourist Valorization of Urban Poverty”, published by Zed Books.

In 2014, over one million tourists visited a township, a favela, a barrio or a slum in some part of the world. By far the largest number visit South Africa’s townships, where, since the end of apartheid, slum tourism has become a mass tourist activity. Rio’s favelas and one large slum in Mumbai, Dharavi, also receive significant numbers of visitors.

In a variety of locations around the world, slum tourism is now emerging as a niche form of tourism. Slum tourism takes place largely as three- to four-hour guided tours, but recent years have shown a remarkable diversification of tourism activities. Slum tourism takes place in vans and jeeps, but also as walking tours or on bikes.

Beyond touring the slum, tourists today find accommodation in slums, and visit restaurants, bars, concert venues, markets or festivals. In Johannesburg, South Africa, it is possible to bungee-jump from the cooling towers of a disused power plant, overlooking the large cluster of townships that is Soweto.

Much of this recent trend in tourism emerged in South Africa and in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1990s. As a form of tourism, it has spread from these two destinations, inspiring new destinations to provide similar offers.

The first slum tours in India, founded in 2006 in Dharavi, Mumbai, as Reality Tour and Travel (RTT), were conceived when one of the founders visited Rio and took part in a tour there. In the meantime RTT has expanded to Delhi; has supported the set-up of slum tours in Manila, Philippines; and, importantly, inspired a numberof competitors in Dharavi.

In the countries neighbouring South Africa, including Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe, township and slum tours have emerged, building on the success of tours in Cape Town and Johannesburg. In Latin America, barrios have become tourist destinations in a number of cities, following the model of favela tourism in Rio de Janeiro.


Tourist interest in slums has influenced policy-makers. In South Africa policy has attempted to use the tourism income streams for the cherished “broad- based black economic empowerment”, attempting to make the tourism industry more beneficial for the country’s black and often relatively poor majority. In Rio de Janeiro, favela tourism has been embraced and supported by policy in attempts to “pacify” and normalise favelas and to create employment and income opportunities.

In Medellín, Colombia, the city government improved the transport infrastructure of Medellín’s barrios by constructing cable cars that provide access to the city. They also aimed at and succeeded in bringing tourists to the barrios, encouraged by building landmark architecture on the high platforms of the cable car. Tourists have since flocked into the barrios, very much as in Rio, where now two of these cable cars exist and double as resident and tourist modes of transport.

Slum tourism might be expanding today on a global scale, but it is not a new phenomenon. In Victorian London rich West Enders regularly visited the poor, slum-like East End. Areas and boroughs like Hackney, Shoreditch and Hoxton offered illicit consumption and entertainment, be it drugs, prostitution or gambling. But they also formed the object of a concerned public gaze that lamented moral deprivation, lack of hygiene and social injustice projected onto and reflected in the London slums.

To Victorian slummers, the visits to the East End were spurred by curiosity, political agitation and charitable engagement – a fashion they carried to New York City, where immigrant slums, like the legendary Five Points, formed much of what is today midtown Manhattan. Slumming in New York expanded in the early to mid twentieth century as Harlem became fashionable for urbanites seeking the latest underground music, access to drugs otherwise prohibited, and an atmosphere of hedonism and urban inclusivity. Much of today’s slum tourism was prefigured in these earlier examples, but there are also a number of differences, in terms of both scale and reach, but also with regard to the broader role of tourism in society.

Rather than prompting broader inquiry, the curious phenomenon of slum tourism elicits strong opinions in the main. When I have discussed this book and my more general research interest in slum tourism, many people have asked me whether I think slum tourism is a good or a bad thing.

A French family take a tour of Rio's Rocinha favela. Image: Getty.

Academics like sitting on the fence, but it is often helpful to critically think about the possible answers before trying to give a verdict. Quite a few observers tend to reject slum tourism outright as degrading and voyeuristic, and this is instinctively understandable. In a world that is characterised by increasing inequality, and which has been described famously as a “planet of slums” by Mike Davis, it might seem the pinnacle of cynicism when slums become tourist attractions.

Tourism and slums, whose very name evokes associations of darkness, dirt and dread, seem to form an unsavoury contrast. Tourists, according to the common understanding, are travelling voluntarily, exercising a freedom that results to a large extent from their relative material wealth. To be wealthy and visit slums, to go slumming just for the thrill: this notion of slum tourism provokes moral outrage.


But for a critical analysis of slum tourism, moral outrage over the practice is not sufficient. A more neutral observer could ask: So what? Tourists do all sorts of things. If they also visit slums, why does that matter?

From this perspective slum tourism matters first because it provides an empirical prism that allows one to reflect on the “social question” and how it is answered. Arguably, slum tourism and some other associated forms of Tourism also relate to the social question, insofar as they point to an interest, perhaps an unease, about poverty among those who are better off. Slums, and the associated poverty and inequality, are issues that tourists seem to feel some need to deal with. In this sense slum tourism is one of the many empirical domains, the cultural and symbolic practices, that attempt to come to terms with poverty and inequality.

If slum tourism is seen as a cultural practice in which the social question is posited and addressed, then moral outrage over its practice becomes more dubious. The representations of poverty in different domains, while often criticised, are rarely rejected as voyeuristic and cynical tout court.

If tourism is understood as a discursive field in which the social question is negotiated, it potentially creates political spaces to develop responses to the social question. In opposition to what has been described as literary slumming, literal slumming even increases the political potential because it enables encounters, takes place in contact zones and affects material cultures and the creation of infrastructures.

Slum tourism thus matters because it is an empirical domain in which the social question is posited, negotiated and sometimes addressed. It can thus be understood as an indicator of how the social question is addressed in particular historical periods.

Dr Fabian Frenze is lecturer in political economy at the University of Leicester.

“Slumming It: The Tourist Valorization of Urban Poverty” is available to buy now, published by Zed Books, and priced £16.99.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how developers are getting out of building affordable homes

Yeah, you will never live here. Image: Getty.

Our housing crisis has been thrust into the spotlight in the worst way possible with the Grenfell Tower disaster. Hundreds have lost loved ones and many are without a home. While Shelter has been calling for those affected to be placed in good quality accommodation nearby, and hopes officials make good on their promise to do so, we know many local authorities simply don't have enough affordable homes.

The main reason for this desperate crisis? A generations-long failure of our housebuilding system to build enough homes that people on ordinary incomes can afford.

Over many years, house prices have continued to soar, while wages have stagnated. The average house price is now 7.6 times the average salary – it was about half that 20 years ago. 

Meanwhile, renters right across the country are having to shell out massive amounts of money every month to cover their rent, all for unstable, short-term contracts. And at the sharp end, homelessness is on the rise, with a shocking 255,000 people finding themselves without a home at the last count.

Today we rely on private housebuilders to build most of our homes. But as profit-driven organisations they are, perhaps understandably, not very good at building affordable homes.

A favoured, and perfectly legitimate way of building fewer affordable homes is through something called a “viability assessment”. When a housing developer gets planning permission they are normally required by the council to make a number of the homes they build officially "affordable". This number varies across the country but is usually between 30 to 50 per cent and developers will be aware of the requirement before they begin drawing up plans.

But the less affordable housing a developer builds, the more profit they could make – so the developer deploys the viability assessment. This allows them to go back to the council and say that the amount of affordable housing they originally agreed is no longer possible.


They’ll often blame changes in their costs or lower than anticipated house prices (as we’ve seen recently with the Battersea Power Station development), meaning they won’t make sufficient profits to build the number of affordable homes originally planned. Their case is strengthened by the fact the law was changed in 2012 to state that the developer must make “competitive returns” (in practice, 20 per cent profit) on the development.

The massive problem here is that we can’t scrutinise these really important decisions because – guess what? – the viability assessment is private. So affordable homes are being denied to people who really need them right across the country in this way, but local communities, journalists, campaigners and charities like Shelter are not being allowed to question it. And of course, it’s those people desperate for an affordable place to live who lose out.

It can be argued that developers are simply following the instinct of most private companies in being competitive and taking the opportunity to make more money. The real issue is that they are allowed to do it so easily in the first place, and keep it a secret.

The viability assessment should only be used when circumstances have made the council’s requirements literally impossible. And in such a case, it should be published so the public can scrutinise it. After all, in such an eventuality – what does anyone have to hide, right?

This issue is among many being discussed in the recent housing special from Channel 4’s Dispatches which looks at the challenges we face in ending the housing crisis.

We need to get tougher and plug this leak of affordable homes, but this is just one symptom of a housing system that is letting the whole nation down.

There are ways to solve this, based around getting land at a cheaper price. Until the government takes bold action to commit to a whole new way of building homes like this, it will be ordinary families who continue to carry the burden of our broken system.

Steve Akehurst is head of public affairs and campaigns at Shelter. Channel 4 Dispatches was broadcast on 10 July, at 8pm. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.