Shack Tourism: Turning poverty into entertainment

Windhoek ‑ The rising phenomenon of “poverty tourism”, “poorism”, “slum tourism”, “shack tours”, “township tours” and “reality tours” has captured the attention of a large number of tourists and is becoming big business.
For some, the new form of tourism is an opportunity for tourists to learn more about the real life situations of the poor and, to some extent, relate to them. Because of its uniqueness to regular tourists, slum tourism has become a niche segment in the tourism industry.
The United Nations defines a slum as, “a run-down area of a city characterised by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security”.
An estimated 40 000 tourists visit slums in Rio de Janeiro each year, while around 300 000 visit the townships in Cape Town. Shack tourism is also popular in Namibia, India, Kenya, Mexico, and many other countries in the developing world.
Although there is some good in slum tourism, there has been a lot of debate on whether it is ethically correct or blatantly wrong.
Some of the statements that surround slum tourism include “poverty turned into entertainment”, “foster a zoo-like mentality”, “very derogatory for the people” and “companies exploiting dwellers”.
“Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from,” said one commentator on a slum tourism debate platform.  
Most tourists and tour operators, however, do not give back to the communities or relate with the dwellers.
Some tour guides even prohibit tourists from interacting with dwellers, losing the “educational” aspect, as tourists do not have an understanding of their situation.
At the end of the day, the tourists only learn how poor a person can be, use the experience to warn themselves not to be like that and the only words that come out of their mouths are: Gthank God l am not like that, thank you Jesus!”  
In most cases, tourists are allowed to take pictures of the slum dwellers during the tours.
While some tourists are allowed to do so, one tour operator in Rio de Janeiro warns tourists against snapping photos of residents without permission, noting that “people don’t like to feel like zoo animals”.
After touring the slums of Kibera in Kenya, one tourist was quoted saying, “I felt this was most disgusting; to treat the poor like zoo animals. Sure, maybe they said something about charity on the slum tour, but I’m sure it was the equivalent of tossing bits of food, so tourists could smile and walk away.”
Most countries have engaged relevant boards and ministries in research on how best to tackle slum tourism. While other countries have set up legislation or regulatory measures, efforts are being made to have more “responsible slum tourism”.
Responsible slum tourism largely involved providing opportunities for tourists to see and understand real world life experiences. Tour operators also focus on providing jobs for local residents (as tour guides, administrative staff and so on) create opportunities that can benefit families.
While some tour operators make it a prerequisite for tourists to be involved in projects being carried out by dwellers, some slum tours are conducted by the slum dwellers. Slum dwellers are also heavily involved in the slum tours by being tour guides, assisting tourists in a more participatory fashion on local projects.
Rather than framing the settlements of Dharavi (Mumbai, India), as a novelty to Western visitors, visitors to the slums of Dharavi are shown the resourcefulness of the residents in a bid to eradicate negative stereotypes.
These may include showing off flourishing local enterprises such as pottery, recycling endeavours, and community centres.
In other areas, tourists and visitors are encouraged to be prepared and to take time out to engage in building projects and other developmental projects for the slum dwellers. Some reality tours say they give 80 percent of post-tax profits from their tours to their partners, while others provide education and training for slum dwellers.
Efforts to get comment from the Namibian Tourism Board CEO regarding regulation of tour operators in Namibia were futile as the CEO requested e-mailed questions, to which she did not respond. Meanwhile, the national co-ordinator of the Namibia Housing Action, Dr Anna Muller, told The Southern Times that they would consider such initiatives, as they were indeed noble.
“There are tour operators who conduct such tours (slum tours) and it would be great if such plans were implemented but currently we are [not] linked to such activities.
“However, l do think that is a good initiative for building houses, but currently we are not in that,” she reiterated.
Countries have invested significantly on researches on how best to make slum tours more beneficial for the tourist and the dwellers. Regulatory frameworks and monitoring have also been set up in order to ensure mutual benefits.
However, other critics say slum tours are no different from tours of the rich suburbs. “Are celebrity tours of Beverly Hills any less voyeuristic than slum tours of Mumbai? I realise the difference is one of wealth and power,” says one writer, concerning the controversial topic. Issues of privacy of the dwellers have also been put on the forefront as many of them live in almost open space areas that allow visitors to peep into their homes.

July 2013
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