Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Slumming it

The rise and rise of slum tourism - tourists visiting the poorest neighbourhoods to see how the worst-off survive rather than heading for the well-known sights - attracts mixed reactions. Some see it as positive, others as cynical exploitation.

It's nothing new of course. The trend was well under way in Victorian London over 130 years ago, when the upper class wanted to see for themselves the poverty in the East End. It took off again when Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in South Africa and tourists flocked to the townships and places linked to apartheid.

Now it's big business in cities like Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing and even New York City, home of the Tenement Museum.

There's a similar trend in Belfast. Not so much slum tourism as conflict tourism. More and more tourists are curious about the areas that suffered heavily during the Troubles, as well as all the paramilitary murals and peace walls.

But opinions are divided over whether this fashion is good or bad. Those in favour say that as well as bringing money into desperately poor areas, it opens the eyes of people who may have lived in comfortable conditions all their lives and know nothing of serious hardship except what they see on TV.

Those against point out that a lot of the money raised doesn't go to the locals at all but to outsiders who've never set foot in the areas visited. And people's eyes may be opened for a few days but when they return to their normal privileged lives they soon forget what they've seen.

At its worst it's a voyeuristic search for cheap thrills and titillating squalor, taking away the dignity and privacy of those they're gawping at and not leaving them with any long-term benefit.

I'm of two minds about it all myself. Yes, there's little financial gain for the places the tourists visit, and little change to the prevailing poverty and degradation. But then again, I think many of those tourists are quite sincere in wanting to know about the wretched lives some people have to endure, and they return home genuinely enlightened and humbled.

The more people experience the grim reality of those forced to exist on the crumbs falling from the millionaires' well-stuffed mouths, the better.

My thanks to James Melik of the BBC for his article on the subject


  1. I didn't really know this concept existed as a form of tourism. I think it's one thing to serve as a volunteer in less fortunate areas as a form of learning and growth. But to go just to look upon those in unfortunate circumstances is rather vile.

  2. Bijoux: If that's the only motive, I agree it's vile. But if you go with an open mind trying to learn something about people in less fortunate circumstances, then I think that's okay.

  3. I have very mixed feelings about these tours, just as I do about people begging on the streets. Seeing a large flash car pull up in the centre of a city at 8.30am one morning and offload a half dozen passengers who headed off in different directions for their begging pitches - I followed one to see if my instinct was correct - alas, it was.

  4. Grannymar: Yes, I've heard about those professional beggars so many times. I must say I prefer to give money to charities that will use it for something more positive than another bottle of booze.

  5. Why this morbid curiosity? Tourists seem to satisfy some basic instinct in these excursions. Or is it just "But for the grace of God, go I"?

    I suppose that you have seen The Slumdog Millionaire. Here is another hot seller - Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. The latter is worth a read.

    I know well off people who live in slums who are loath to shift residence as they find the social life and security of the slums far more comfortable than they expect to find in middle class localities.

  6. Ramana: Is it morbid or genuine curiosity? A mixture of both, I think. Yes, I've seen Slumdog Millionaire. And it didn't do much for the actors or local residents, from what I've heard. I'll check out the book.

    That's interesting about well-off people who prefer living in the slums. Middle class enclaves can be pretty suffocating sometimes!

  7. Ramana: The book by Katherine Boo looks extremely good. I shall order a copy straightaway.

  8. Nick:
    I've heard of this and I continue to be completely repelled by it. It is sickening.

    I do not see the purpose of it at all.

    As to so-called enlightenment?

    I don't believe a word of it.

    Enlightenment would see volunteers assisting - for instance through KIVA which I use.



  9. www: Well yes, I guess volunteers are easier to defend than gawping tourists, but I do think some tourists are quite sincere in their interest.

  10. I can understand the conflict tourism as it's part of history - we visit old castles etc - but not sure about seeing slums. I would want to know how many people are changed or behave differently as a result.

  11. Liz: My blogmates are a pretty cynical lot, clearly. And seeing castles may be fun, but you don't learn a lot about the former occupants. Most of whom were also pretty downtrodden, I imagine.

  12. It can be prurient, but it can also be a way to learn. Sometimes called "terror tours" or "dark tourism" - I find the Jack the Ripper tours in London distasteful, but think it is important to visit a concentration camp if the opportunity arises.
    I've also wandered round poor high density areas in parts of Africa with locals to see and learn. No megaphones, clipboards or raised umbrellas were involved.

  13. Paul: I suppose whether the Jack the Ripper tours are distasteful rather depends on what line the commentary takes - a bloodthirsty, thrill-seeking approach, or a sympathetic feminist one. Yes, I see nothing wrong with wandering around poor areas or ex-concentration camps simply wanting to learn about other people's lives.

  14. Have you seen "Welcome to India" on the BBC? Great eye opener as to how others live.

  15. Dicky: No, I've never seen "Welcome to India". I must check it out.