“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.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.