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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Slummin’ it: The re-emergence of an ethical tourism debate

By William N Hunter, on 27 July 2012

Just the other day as I stood on semi-cramped tube carriage in morning rush-hour on the London Underground, passively flipping through the Metro, that bourgeois staple of just-above-the surface news periodical, I was pleasantly surprised to arrive at an article of astute guile and questioning verve. Ross McGuinness’* article on whether the concept of ‘slum tourism’ was merely a glorified exploitive cash cow or a legitimate method for enabling those individuals and communities stuck in poverty stricken conditions struck a particular chord, especially given the coincidental fact that just the evening before Film4 was screening Danny Boyle’s multi-award winning Slumdog Millionaire.

McGuinness keenly points to that film and others such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God and The Constant Gardener as catalysts in how cinema has had a profound universal influence on generating a newfound interest in the intriguing and somehow exotic qualities of a mostly unknown social and cultural phenomenon, at least to the rest of Western society. Despite a lack of prevalent data on the correlation between exposure through film, there is little doubt in the re-emergence or growth of travellers seeking a different kind of experience as they eschew the erstwhile daily grind of the office or the default third trip to an easy and enjoyable European capital. But what exactly are they hoping to see and find in these alternative landscapes and moreover what does it imply in regards to the how the other half- the residents of these areas- perceive this attention?

It seems that a fortuitous parallel occurred in the sense that many of the ‘slums’ across the world that have experienced such influx of intrigue are located in glamour destinations already on the tourist map, for example cities in Brazil and South Africa, which became more accessible and certainly popular after the Apartheid. As Dr. Fabian Frenzel points out in the article, in Rio “favela tourism has almost become part of the package.” Frenzel is a lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Leicester and has just published a lengthy EU funded volume on the subject titled Slum Tourism: Poverty, Power, and Ethics* which attempts to advance the debate on the concept of slum tourism and put to rest the easy generalisations and presumptions that follow this trend.

The big question that stems from any presumption or debate is one of whether slum tourism should be considered an exploitive mechanism for selfish capital gain or a legitimate driver and benefit for poorer populations in cities and territories in development. But this too, as Frenzel points out, is also a generalisation of the argument. For the notion of slum tourism or at least some version of it is nothing novel at all. As a revelatory note, Frenzel and McGuinness highlight the UK’s own booming experience with the concept in the 1870-80s when well-off Londoners from the West End would visit the seedy East London foxholes of Hackney and Shoreditch and draw attention to Engels’ description of Manchester’s Irish Quarter around the same time. It is also well known that New York saw a similar phenomenon all the way through the Great Depression in such storied hollows as Central Park, briefly documented in Ron Howard’s film Cinderella Man.

                                                     drawing of old London slums


So what then is the difference now in the situation and debate surrounding the economy of slum tourism? Given the fact that in some cities the idea has existed in various forms before, there are some examples where individuals involved in this growing enterprise have implemented an arguably less exploitive methodology. As the article reveals and according to his website, for 20+years, Marcelo Armstrong has run Favela Tour in Rio. Says Armstrong, “We talk about many subjects that it’s not proper to talk about if you go to Sugarloaf Mountain or Christ the Redeemer. You just see Rio. Every new step we do something new. The tour is basically to contextualize favelas into Brazilian society. It is not a tour that only talks about favelas but about Brazilian society from another point of view.” On the surface this doesn’t sound like exploitation, but rather a more critically insightful alternative tour experience, even more than one might expect to receive at the tourist flooded landmarks of the city. To that, McGuinness pointedly asks if visitors in fact go on the tours for the right reasons. Armstrong’s response is that “Human beings are very complex. There are many motivations why they want to go there. Some may have a specific interest because they are teachers, historians, social workers or architects. Others because they want to confront what they have read about. Others have seen films.” An argument for the genuine article in this particular tour which has 1500 visitors per month is that it funds a school- highlighting the belief that education is the main way out of poverty.

                                                     favela tour, Rio


Aside from the primary of question of ethics and benefits, it is important to ask what is wrong with ordinary individuals wanting to gain some perspective towards a subject or a reality that they themselves do not encounter on an everyday scale- that has itself been coloured up (or down) or exploited by media and film. Not every person could be thought of as a gawker and as Armstrong points out, many of the visitors have a certain level of sophisticated and clear motivation. And tours, at least like his cater to a more critical mass of individual and subject rather than object. The work of the DPU comes quickly to mind.

Each May our various MSc courses take intriguing and somewhat exotic journeys to destinations in the Global South- i.e. Ghana, India, Ethiopia, Thailand. While the agenda is one of determined, critical and open-minded social consideration, many of our students have never spent time in such extreme conditions and there always exists a high level of debriefing and attention given to the perception we have and a clarity of what we are intending to do there. In nearly every case we are working in collaboration with community groups from within these possible slum areas, so our appearance is generally measured. Though the fact that we are there conducting research still places us square in the middle of the debate. And we are constantly questioning the benefit of our work for the communities that have taken their time to share with us the challenges they may face.

                                                     pavement dwellers in Dharavi, Mumbai


Another significant note worth mentioning, and one that is also being revealed more and more in parallel regards to why these areas have piqued such an interest for researchers and tourists alike is the fact that despite a usually clear lack of sufficient provided infrastructure, resources, and opportunity slum communities produce some of the most fascinating informal economic systems and represent, across many societies, the truly historic and grounded ideal of the working classes, the vital aspects of society. The cultural practices and the levels of resilience in these areas is something to behold and learn from, and in the case of this type of tourism, and witness in the flesh. I can signal my own experience in Mumbai when on a day off from the field research, I had the opportunity to visit the dohbi ghats- the fantastic community clothes washing centre where millions of residents and travellers’ garments go to cycle. The children outside the gate could not have been more than excited to guide me around the inner-workings for a very nominal fee. And I was able to talk with workers about what I was doing in Mumbai and about the phenomenon and tradesmen history of the dohbi ghats. This is just one of hundreds of examples that could ripen this post and address the debate further. Unfortunately this admittance will be for another day.

                                                     dohbi ghats in Mumbai, India


But, this brings up a point in that if slum tourism continues to grow, it should arguably be harnessed from within these communities. It may be a fine line, but there is a difference between exploitation, even self-exploitation and the sharing of culture. As the debate rages on and discourse and research is built around the subject, slum tourism can be seen as urban tactic formed around local trades and culture and most certainly can act as a catalyst for prompting wider strategy, whether that sits in education initiatives or physical environment upgrading. Practitioners and those individuals with knowledge in the tourism industry and likewise steeped in local knowledge have a responsibility to jump on the potential, if and/or before it is appropriated. In an ideal scenario, the local slum communities and socially-minded professionals would come to define the paradigm. If this is slow in formation, according to Ko Koens of the Slum Tourism Network and part of the research team with Fabian Frenzel, at least “if done in a respectful way that actively tries to benefit the local communities, it can help inhabitants gain income and pride. On the other hand, issues of access and power abuse may mean only a limited number of people benefit.” So continues the conundrum…


Ross McGuiness’ article Slum tourism: A cynical cash cow or a helping hand to those in poverty? appeared in the Metro 11 July 2012
 Dr. Fabian Frenzel’s Slum Tourism: Poverty, Power, and Ethics is out now through Routledge
Marcelo Armstrong’s Favel Tour Rio can be found at http://www.favelatour.com.br /

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