Trends in Slum Tourism
Jacqueline M. Delic
School of Hospitality and Tourism Management
University of Guelph
Slum tourism is one of the fastest-growing niche tourism segments in the world. Often consisting of
affluent Westerners, slum tours are becoming more prominent in the Global South. It has only been a
growing trend in the past two decades, but with publicity from a variety of films and movies, slum
tourism is becoming a popular topic for debate. Its controversial nature strikes up the ethical dilemma:
does slum tourism have educational value or voyeuristic intents? Typically, organized tour operators
offer half day guided walking tours to interested tourists wishing to seek how the other half lives.
Because slum tourism is such a new phenomenon, there is relatively little research or tourist generated
statistics and records on the subject; however, the topic has grabbed the attention of academics and the
general public alike.
Keywords: slum tourism, favela tourism, poverty tourism
Slum tourism is one of the fastest-growing niche tourism segments in the world and is no
stranger to controversy. A slum, as defined by the United Nations, is “a run-down area of a city
characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security” (Ma, 2010, 3). Slum
tourism is the formation of organized tours in these areas. Because slum tourism is a new phenomenon,
there is relatively little research on the subject. This paper will begin to discuss slum tourism and the
regions where it is most popular, the historic development of the niche, the impacts it has had on the
regions affected, and a look into the future evolution of the trend.
DESCRIPTION OF THE TREND
In a general sense, “slum tourism” falls under the umbrella of poverty tourism – where tourists
travel to less developed areas to view people living in poverty. It is referred to as “favela tourism” in
Brazil, “township tourism” in Africa, and is simply known as “slum tourism” in India. The regions that
this paper will discuss are Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, a variety of locations in Africa, and Mumbai in
India. These include the largest slums in their regions based on population and geographical size.
An overwhelming majority of visitors to slum destinations are deemed “curious, rich
Westerners” (Freire – Medeiros, 2008, 584). In fieldwork by Ma (2010) from Reality Tours & Travel in
Mumbai, Americans and Australians with an average annual income of $100,000 make up the largest
proportions of visitors. Long haul travelers saturate the market as it is rare that members of the
surrounding city dare to journey into the depths of the slums that are in their own backyards. This can
be seen as only 5% of visitors in Ma's research were from India. Slum tourism attracts a relatively
balanced amount of female and male visitors, drawing tourists ranging from 25 to 55 years of age
(Freire – Medeiros, 2008).
In Ma's 2010 study of slum tourism and travel motivations, three of the top four motivators
related to cultural curiosity. Slum tourism provides a unique experience that many find it hard to even
begin to imagine. Today's traveler seeks meaning in their vacations and is moving away from the trend
of sheer fun and pleasure. Slum tourism allows the tourist to engross him/herself “in a more primitive
society, in which the tourist could reflect on his/her own identity in modern society in comparison to
the 'Other'” (Ma, 2010, 8). The concept of the “tourist gaze” explains just that (Urry, 1990, cited in Ma,
2010). Tourists are motivated by the desire to witness differences between the “tour object” and what
occurs in everyday life (Ma, 2010). They often have an expectation and are curious to see if the
authentic experience meets that expectation. Slum tourism tour operators help fulfill tourists' curiosities
by providing a glimpse of life on the inside. Typically, small groups are taken on half day tours for a
small price, lead by guides who allow tourists to walk through the homes and small businesses in the
The roots of slum tourism can be traced back to 1884 when the Oxford English Dictionary first
recognized the term “slumming it” (Loftus, 2009). Tourists visited neighbourhoods such as
Whitechapel in London or the Lower East Side in New York to “see how the other half lived” (Loftus,
2009). These areas were not necessarily as extreme as the slums that can be found on the outskirts of
major cities presently, but at the time, they were considered the poorest locations and sparked interest
among the wealthy, the same demographic most interested today.
For the next hundred years, there were no organized tourism strategies for slum tourism.
Instead, regions – mostly in the Global South, trying to develop their economy took on a “slum
clearance” strategy. The slums were seen as dirty and an “eyesore” to major cities who were trying to
attract tourists. Governments put money into removing them from the city borders. The rationale was
that tourists would not want to come to cities that were associated with slums, primarily due to safety
issues and a lack of cleanliness (Freire – Medeiros, 2008). Although the popularity of slum tourism is
on the rise, the niche still faces these concerns from some people today.
The 1980s brought about “township tourism” in South Africa, attracting tourists wanting to
learn more about the apartheid and living conditions of the African population. The Kibera slum of
Nairobi, houses 1.5 million people and is one of the largest slums in the world. It has also been deemed
the “friendliest slum in the world” for the positive attitudes and overall happiness of its inhabitants
(Cejas, 2006). Currently, the two major tour operators offering “slum safaris” are Real Adventures
Africa and Victoria Safaris. They highlight the “rainbow nation”, a term coined by Desmond Tutu used
to describe post-apartheid South Africa after its first fully democratic election in 1994. Most visitors
leave these tours feeling touched and they often gain a new understanding for those in need (Cejas,
It was not until the mid-1990s at the United Nations Earth Summit on Sustainable Development
in Rio de Janeiro that slum tourism took off and became a recognized form of dark tourism. Brazil is
home to Rocinha, the largest slum in Latin America. One of the most popular slum tour organizations is
Favela Tours which has seen an average of 3,000 tourists per month for the past ten years. A total of
98% of its market is foreigners, a trend seen across all organized slum tours (Freire – Medeiros, 2008).
Dharavi is Asia's biggest slum and is home to more than one million residents covering 1.8
square kilometres (Forster, 2009). Reality Tours & Travel is the largest slum tour operator in Mumbai.
Mumbai's slums are home to 15,000 small businesses that contribute $700 million per year to India's
economy (Wall Street Journal, 2007). It is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in and
the slums sit on prime real estate. Developers have tried numerous times to bribe the slum dwellers to
move to tiny high rise apartments because they believe that it tarnishes the “India rising” image (Wall
Street Journal, 2007). Should this happen, it would eliminate the demand for slum tourism in Mumbai
Movie induced tourism has played a large role in the increasing popularity of slum tourism. The
release of the 2008 Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire” internationally boosted awareness of
slumming and increased Mumbai's popularity as a slum tourist destination. Business reportedly
increased by 25% after its release (Ma, 2010). The 2005 film, “The Constant Gardener”, brought a
wave of tourists to Africa's Kibera slums after exposure from the box office hit. Similarly, Rio saw an
increase in tourists after the movie “City of God” was released in 2002 (Freire – Medeiros, 2008).
These films create interest among viewers who want the chance to witness the film locations in real
life, rather than on a big screen.
Slum tourism, as a recognized and profitable form of tourism was non-existent a few decades
ago. With so many regions of the world stuck in extreme poverty, tour operators in these countries are
beginning to realize that by turning these slums into destinations, they will be able to make a profit
because tourists “seem to feel the need to go anywhere ... as long as [they] can pay the fee” (Ma, 2010,
BREADTH OF IMPACTS TO DATE
Slum tourism sparks the heated debate between whether this trend is an ethical practice. Does it
promote educational value or does it have voyeuristic intent? Christine Bowers, a consultant for the
World Bank says “the jury’s still out on whether the tours are perverse invasions of privacy or eye-
opening experiences that will prompt action on the poverty agenda” (Cited in Forster, 2009, 1).
Some argue that one of the reasons poverty still exists is because people are too far away from it
geographically and mentally. Those with the means to provide help and support cannot imagine what it
is like to live like that, finding it hard to make the connection between their everyday lives and the slum
residents without experiencing it firsthand (Forster, 2009). Slum tourism can be used as a means to
educate people and raise awareness about the living conditions of those less fortunate than themselves.
It brings hope that tourists might go back home and take action to help those in need, whether it be
where they just visited or in their own local area.
Those that claim slum tourism is voyeuristic believe that it does nothing but exploit the less
fortunate. It promotes the practices of “gazing at people in poverty as if they were animals in a zoo”
(Forster, 2009, 1). Slum tourism claims to be an authentic representation of life in the slums but one
must question whether or not the residents' behaviour become altered with an influx of tourists arriving
and departing after only a few short hours each day. It turns poverty into entertainment as it is
experienced momentarily and then escaped from permanently (Cejas, 2006). This form of “reality
tourism” can be equated to the ever so popular “reality television”. Tour operators, like television
producers, can essentially write a script for tour guides on what is said - who is hero, who is the villain,
and what areas should be highlighted (Cejas, 2006). It essentially turns residents into commodities, a
“product in the service of an industry” (Whyte, Selinger, & Outterson, 2010, 7). Residents should play
a role in the planning of tourism not a role in the actual tourist attraction itself.
Slum tourism questions the concept of privacy as tourists parade through the slum community.
“Is it morally permissible for financially privileged tourists to visit places for the purpose of
experiencing where poor people live, work, and play” (Whyte et al, 2010, 2)? Some argue that the elite
have this same problem with the popularity of Hollywood Tours; however, the rich have the
opportunity to live in gated communities and block their houses with bushes and trees. Slum residents
do not have that option when their houses are made of tin and scrap metal. They are put there, in plain
sight, for all who pass by to see. Slum tours do not allow residents to separate “work” from “play”
when the activities of their daily lives are on display at all times.
Slum tourism lacks consent, which “requires, at a minimum, adequate information and a
realistic opportunity to say no” (Whyte et al., 2010, 5). This relates to the concept of privacy as the
tours are focused upon residents. In these areas, tour planning does not involve collaboration between
residents and tourists. It does not allow the “residents' perspectives and voices [to] shape the way in
which the tourism activities are envisioned and carried out” (Whyte et al., 2010, 5). The tour operators
allocate the tours to be run on the days and times in which they are going to be the most profitable.
Little consideration is given as to whether or not it conflicts with any parts of the residents' daily lives.
The mission and purpose of organized tours must be made clear to slum residents. Concerns
have been expressed that the company and tourists do not make attempts to better the slum conditions
because it is not communicated effectively. The residents are also sometimes unaware of who the
tourists are or what they are interested in. This reiterates the lack of communication and causes
residents to become uneasy and distrusting, especially because the tourists do not generally interact
with the residents due to language barriers (Whyte et al., 2010). This confusion could cause serious
tension between the residents and locals, varying in degrees on Doxey's irritation index (Cited in
Beeler, 2000). The scale measures the attitudes of locals towards tourists as their numbers increase. It
ranges from the lowest spectrum of euphoria where, in the initial phase of development, “visitors and
investors are welcome”; to apathy, where there is a “more formal interaction between host and guests:
leading to the higher stages of annoyance, where tourist arrivals reaching saturation points leave locals
with “reservations towards tourism and tourists begin to grow”; and finally, antagonism, where
irritation is openly expressed and visitors are “blamed as the cause of all societal problems” (Beeler,
2000, 10). This may lead to crime against tourists or other acts of violence.
One final issue to be addressed is the economic impact that these tours have on the slums. The
threat of economic leakage is high, unless tour operators manage them properly. Visitors should be
aware of what portions of the profits of their tour goes back into the community in order to support
responsible tourism. It is also important that research be done to ensure that the money claimed to be
redistributed back into the community actually is. Reality Tours & Travel of Mumbai claims that 80%
of profits are placed back in the community in an effort to aid those less fortunate (Loftus, 2009). No
evidence was found, however, that this was truly the case.
ANTICIPATED FUTURE EVOLUTION AND IMPACTS
In December 2010, the University of the West of England in Bristol, United Kingdom held the
first international conference on slum tourism entitled “Destination Slum!”. It was the first opportunity
for delegates from six continents to discuss tourism issues in the slums around the world. There were
25 presentations from experts in the field which sparked great discussion of the issues at hand. It
appears that this conference has sparked the debate amongst intellectuals and politicians alike
(Destination Slum, 2011).
The International Sociological Association will feature a session on “Slums, Ghettoes, and the
Internal Periphery of the Global Urban” at the annual Research Committee 21 conference held at the
University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, July 7 – 9, 2011. It will “address the contemporary and
historical significance of the urban periphery to the development of the global urban and global
system” (Destination Slum, 2011). As more conferences such as these begin to emerge, more awareness
will come to slum tourism and communities can learn to manage it properly.
All eyes are on Brazil in the sporting world during the next five years as it hosts the World Cup
of soccer in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. This puts a lot of pressure on Rio de Janeiro to effectively
manage the largest favela in the world as these two events bring in thousands of tourists and millions of
tourist dollars. Rio's newest initiative is the “Rio Top Tour: Rio de Jaineiro in a Different Perspective”.
Integrated in 2010, this tour allows the government, along with residents, to promote tours celebrating
local arts and culture. Slum residents guide the tours, as they know the area best, to showcase the rich
community that is often masked by such deep poverty (Loftus, 2009).
There is an increasing trend towards pro poor tourism, “tourism that generates net benefits for
the poor” (Roe & Urquhart, 2001, 2). This is not a sector or a niche, like slum tourism, but an approach
to the industry as a whole. It is comprised of three core activities: increasing access to economic
benefits, addressing the negative social and environmental impacts, and policy/process reform (Roe &
Urquhart, 2001). If managed effectively, slum tourism is an example of a way that “poorism” can be
integrated into communities beneficially. As this trend continues to gain interest from travelers, slum
tourism should see the benefits as well.
As tour operators continue to battle with the ethical debate over slum tourism, there may be a
rise in homestays, which are more long term than the traditional half day tour. Currently, these types of
tours are created so that groups are guided by a chaperone and they take a trip to a rural village where
each tourist stays with a resident for a matter of days or weeks. The price covers travel expenses,
operator fees, food, supplies, profit, and a donation to a charitable organization. By living with
residents, tourists will get to actually see what it is like to live in that community (Whyte et al., 2010).
Tour operators can take this idea and cater it to the slums. The same idea would apply and tourists
would gain from the educational experience, while residents would retain profits. As the demand side
in slum tourism continues to increase, the supply side needs to diversify their offerings from a single
product offering to keep up with competition from other niche markets.
Ironically, one of the few threats to the rise in slum tourism is the United Nations Millennium
Development Goals. The first goal is to, by 2015, half the proportion of people that, in 1990, had an
income of under $1 a day (Roe & Urquhart, 2001). Although this is a step forward for the human race
and a positive advancement for society, it will decrease the amount of slums, therefore reducing slum
tourism. This goal will better the residents living in these conditions but the people wanting to
experience extreme poverty will have fewer choices of where to do so. Either way, ghettos and slums
are a fact of life and although this goal is hopeful for the future, slums will not be going anywhere
Whyte, Selinger, and Outterson (2010) have proposed six ways that poverty tours can become
more sensitive and empowering. They are:
1) Local residents are employed
2) The majority of profits accrue to the community
3) Good behaviour is reinforced and bad behaviour sanctioned
4) The local economy is supported
5) The tourist agency fosters the tourists' open-mindedness
6) New infrastructure should be built for the residents, not to accommodate the tourists
If these suggestions can be followed, the sustainability of slum tourism would improve. It would help
simmer the debate of its role in the tourism industry as it would be beneficial to a wider variety of
It has been claimed that “if one cannot abolish tourism, one should transform it into a fairer
industry” (Freire – Medeiros, 2008, 582). Slum tourism has the potential to benefit the slum community
and the nation's economy as a whole, while tourists generate an increased interest in how the less
fortunate live. It is human nature to be curious of the unknown and this growing niche allows a glimpse
into an alternate life. Thanks to the media, there is growing exposure and an increase in academic
interest that is sparking more research in the field. As the industry is still considered premature and
highly controversial, there lacks the abundance of tourist generated statistics and records; but as long as
the trend continues, there will be a greater awareness and insight into the phenomenon in the future.
Whether one thinks slum tourism is educational or voyeuristic, “eyes are being opened. It all depends
on what you do with what you see” (Friere – Medeiros, 2008, 587).
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