“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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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