Gullible Travels

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REUTERS / Arko Datta

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.

Prices vary. A short tour of Mumbai’s Dharavi slum can be had for $11, while a private tour that includes interaction with residents costs $71. Alex Ndambo, who books all types of tours for Real Adventures Africa from Nairobi’s Boulevard Hotel, told me a day tour of Kibera costs $50 to $80. He said he’d “heard” that 35 to 45 percent goes to the community, where most people live on less than a dollar a day.

Slum tours have existed in some form for a long time. Nineteenth-century New Yorkers toured the Bowery to satisfy their curiosity, and perhaps to stimulate their charitable instincts. Today, however, the Internet has helped popularize the concept as never before: Travelers in almost any major city can find or arrange a tour of the urban underbelly. A 2009 article in National Geographic Traveler called reality tourism “the latest frontier in travel” and credited its growth to tourists’ eschewing “indulgent vacations in favor of more meaningful travel experiences.” The same article gave tips for “the right way to slum it,” like inquiring about how much of the cost goes to the slum community, but it neglected to mention how difficult that information is to verify.

All tour promoters claim the best intentions. Most tours have rules for patrons: no photos without permission from the subject, no peering into windows, and no handing out treats or money to the children who chant “How are you?” while reaching out to brush white skin. After tours end, guides typically solicit donations of cash or goods on behalf of residents, pledging to pass along the loot.

The biggest markets for slum tours are Kibera, Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (shanty­towns), and the Dharavi district of Mumbai. The obvious reasons are their scale, both in square footage and degree of human misery, and the fact that all three have been featured prominently in major films. For Kibera, it was The Constant Gardener (2005); for Rio, City of God (2002); and for Mumbai, Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Those films didn’t create slum tourism, but they have certainly bolstered it.

Kennedy Odede, a cofounder of Kibera’s first free girls’ school, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in August describing how, as a teenager outside his Kibera shack, he spied a white woman taking his picture and “felt like a tiger in a cage.” He recalled another occasion when a tour guide–someone he knew–led a group into a private home to photograph a woman giving birth.

For my part, I had a job to do in Kibera and an invitation to be there. Yet I have to wonder what made me so different from slum tourists, driven as I was by curiosity, seeking the satisfaction of doing good, and attracted, like many journalists, to danger and despair.

My husband and I traveled around Kibera under the guidance of a resident named Bangkok, a nickname he acquired after a trip to Thailand as part of a youth boxing team. With a scar on one cheek and long, muscular limbs, Bangkok moved with leonine grace and assurance. Kibera is said to have “a thousand corners,” and every time we rounded another it was plain from the deference we were accorded that no one messed with Bangkok. “You get into any trouble,” he said, “just say Bangkok.”

Each time we returned to Kibera, the residents seemed less beaten down and foreign, and we appreciated their resourcefulness and vitality more. Once we got over the initial shock of the place, we could begin to see Kibera as a community, not just a slum. But this takes time, and a tour is by definition a glimpse, a chance to skim the surface.

Bangkok also led commercial slum tours, and in the midst of such extreme poverty I questioned my right to criticize how he made a living. He told me he made sure Kibera residents got a cut of the profits. Perhaps they did. But to date there appears to be no real accounting, there or anywhere else, of how much tourism money actually makes its way into the slums.

Robert Frank, blogging for the Wall Street Journal‘s “Wealth Report” in February 2010, wrote that the slum tourism debate has so far been “fueled by emotion and politics, with little research.” That may change, he added, with a study by British researcher Fabian Frenzel, who is attempting to quantify the economic impact of tourism in Rio’s favelas.

When I asked Ndambo in Nairobi what Kenyan lawmakers thought about Kibera tours, he said they encourage them because it inspires charitable giving. You could also say it helps let the leaders off the hook when it comes to addressing the poverty in their midst.

Brazil is trying a different approach with “Rio Top Tour: Rio de Janeiro in a Different Per­spective,” through which the government partners with slum residents to promote tours celebrating local arts and culture, and marketing something other than poverty to tourists. A bit of shrewd politics in advance of hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics, perhaps, but it also shows how slum tours could evolve into something genuinely beneficial to residents.

Curious about the demographics of slum tourists, I asked Ndambo who is most apt to book a Kibera tour. “Americans,” he answered without hesitation. Asked why he thought that was the case, he replied, “I suppose it’s because Americans are so kind.”

“Thoughtless” is more like it, if you ask Wayne and Emely Silver, cofounders of American Friends of Kenya (AFK). Since 2004 their Connecticut-based nonprofit has provided partnership on projects driven by Kenyans. No one associated with AFK is paid. Twice I’ve joined the Silvers in an ethics class at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Connecticut, to discuss working in developing nations. Slum tours were a hot topic, and I found the “reality television” generation primed to give them a chance. Most tourists probably want to help, students theorized, and as long as they are respectful, where is the harm?

Wayne Silver insisted that the tours are “inherently disrespectful” because there can be “no real zone of privacy” where homes are shacks and all neighborhood life is on the streets. Students listened respectfully, but not all were convinced. “Eyes are being opened,” one said. “It all depends on what you do with what you see,” said another.

To this Emely Silver offered a challenge. The plane ticket alone makes any trip to Africa an expensive proposition, she said, “so if you can afford to go to Africa to take a slum tour, you can afford to go and work with us.”

Excerpted from Commonweal (Dec. 17, 2010), an independent journal of opinion edited and managed by lay Catholics.

This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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