In Dharavi, the biggest slum of Asia located in Mumbai, it costs you about 11,40$ to find out how poor people live and to experience a poor life first hand. You can do so by booking a tour with Reality Tours, one of several agencies all over the world specializing in tours for tourists interested in seeing the life in a slum.
But you can go „slumming“ not only in India but also in the famous favelas of Rio de Janeiro or South Africa´s townships, as shown in the picture above. But what are the effects of this for poor people and what are the motivations of people actually attending such tours?
Most tourists seem to be interested in another cultural experience in their holidays when booking a tour. They seek to understand how people live and consider it an adventurous event during their two weeks break of normal life. The results of those experiences for visitors of slums differ from a life-changing event to a new, relative view on the life of poor people considering it to be not as bad as expected. Thus the contrasting experience either raises awareness for poverty and encourages people to donate and help, or diminishes poverty to kind of a cultural identity.
The organizing agencies therefore try to contribute to the life in the slums and improve it by building for example schools or community centers – but critiques say that not much of the income actually gets to the place where it would be needed. Furthermore the tours may cause a loss of dignity for slum dwellers in order to provide tourists with great pictures. Even if tour organizers try to limit the group size and number of pictures taken we cannot deny that poverty tourism is an extreme form of showing off the differences between rich and poor people.
We can see this for example by looking at the prices of one trip. A tour of 2,5 hours in Dharavi is around 11$ which is equal to more than 12% of the average monthly income in India – thus not even closely reflecting the difference between the amount paid to the travel agency and the average income in Dharavi.
So, should we avoid and disregard poverty tourism? It is very difficult to find the right measure of interest in the life and for the situation of others without separating from them if the life of others is so extremely different. We have to be careful not to exclude poor people by watching them in their „natural habitat“ but participate in their experiences in order to understand their needs and help.
In this sense poverty tourism might be helpful even if only a small percentage of people visiting actually considers donating and helping. Nevertheless we have to question if this kind of help is sustainable and most of all efficient.
I personally think it can be if raising awareness means to strengthen international pressure on local governments to improve the living situation of poor people. But donating money to support the activities of a travel agency – even if it has more or less the form of a NGO – might probably not be a way out of poverty on the long run.
Written by Julia Seither