Published: March 2009FEATURE
Slum Tours: Real or Real Tacky?
Photo: India
An Indian boy surveys a yard paved with drying clay bowls.
By Margaret Loftus
Photo by Jonas Bendiksen

The Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire has made the world's poor urban districts a popular tourist destination. Is it supportive or exploitive? National Geographic Traveler takes a look.

There was a time when most travelers tried to avoid the dicey parts of town. But an increasing number are now seeking them out on so-called reality tours. From Rio's favelas to Mumbai's Dharavi slum to Nairobi's Mukuru district, the trend is gaining steam as the latest frontier in travel. The phenomenon shows no sign of waning as more travelers rethink indulgent vacations in favor of more meaningful travel experiences. It's partially a byproduct of the global economic crisis. Another, sadly, is that the ranks of the poor are growing.

Favela tours were a hard sell when Marcelo Armstrong introduced them in 1992; today, he and his seven guides average about 800 customers a month. In Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums, Reality Tours and Travel co-founder Chris Way gives some five walking tours a day in peak season, up from two a week three years ago (although numbers dropped somewhat immediately following last November's attacks in Mumbai).

Many who have signed on have found the experience enriching. "I got the sense of being in the real Rio, not the tourists' Rio," said Nicholas Wolaver of his four-hour tour, which included talking to favela residents. Many travelers say reality tours tackle head-on the economic disparities between travelers and locals that often leave an uneasy feeling in those who travel to developing countries.

What may be an enriching experience to some, however, is deeply unsettling to others. Critics argue that some tours can be exploitive, where well-fed tourists gawk at the less fortunate. "We seem to feel the need to go anywhere, whether it's slums or the top of Mount Everest, as long as we can pay the fee," says David Fennell, professor of tourism and environment at Brock University in Ontario. But proponents claim they offer opportunities for cultural exchange and a chance for the disenfranchised to benefit from the tourist dollar through entrepreneurship. So, where exactly does a thoughtful traveler draw the line? Is slum tourism—or poorism, as it's sometimes called—a means of authentic travel or a form of voyeurism?

Choose the right kind of tour, says Harold Goodwin, director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at England's Leeds Metropolitan University. Some tours are blatant in their disregard for the inhabitants. He points to an experience he had while visiting a woman in a township in South Africa: As he was leaving, a motor coach stopped outside the woman's home; it was packed with tourists snapping photos through the windows of the idling bus." She said, 'They treat me like an animal, as if they're on safari.' "

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