Gullible Travels

Poverty tours give new meaning to “slumming it”

| May-June 2011

In the lobby of Nairobi’s Boulevard Hotel you’ll see signs promoting all manner of tourist sites, from a Maasai crafts market to animal parks. For now, at least, you’re unlikely to see any signs promoting tours of Nairobi’s infamous Kibera slum, the largest in East Africa. Yet such tours aren’t difficult to find.

As a reporter covering the debut of Kibera’s first free school for girls in 2009, I made multiple visits to the massive slum, where an estimated 1.5 million people eke out an existence mostly without basic services such as electricity, running water, sanitation, and police protection. I was shocked to learn that this was a popular tourist destination.

Kibera is one of the leading attractions of “poverty tourism”—a trend that has been given many names, including “slum safaris” and “poverty porn.” From Soweto to São Paulo, Jakarta to Chicago, urban “slumming” has become a global phenomenon, even as a lively debate rages about the ethics of what promoters call “reality tourism.”

The fuss over slum tours may be just a footnote to the great international-aid debate, but the same hot-button issues arise: Who really reaps the economic benefits? What are the long-term effects? And where—for the poor who are the prime attraction—is the protection and oversight?

Of course, no one who promotes slum tours actually says, “Come with us to gawk at desperately poor people.”

The typical pitch targets travelers’ desire for authentic experiences, as if authenticity can only be found in suffering. But the broader appeal is to travelers’ charitable impulses: Take this tour and help slum dwellers in the process, because—it is claimed—part of the profits go to schools, orphanages, and other worthy projects.

steve eatenson
6/1/2011 5:56:45 PM

Good grief, just when I think I've heard it all! If someone really wants a slum tour, let them go live among the poor for a year, share their living accomodations and work along side them to do the work of building, cleaning, cooking, caring for children, the sick and the elderly. Otherwise, allow these poor people the human dignity they deserve by not treating them like a spectacle.

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