“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.

 
 
 
 

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