Poverty Tourism: Exploring the Slums of India, Brazil and South Africa

Pick your way through a squatter settlement of Mumbai, India, where one million people live in an area half the size of New York’s Central Park. Step over rats in the shanty towns around Rio de Janeiro. Or meet local South Africans living in a Soweto township near Johannesburg, dubbed the most dangerous city outside of war zones. These kinds of activities all fall under the heading of poverty tourism.

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Like many forms of dark tourism, poverty tourism — sometimes called poorism — has only been given its label recently. Poverty tourism commonly refers to small organized tours that you can take upon arriving in a city, and these tours will walk or drive you through an area of extreme poverty. When I first heard the term it sounded like pure voyeurism to me — come and watch how the funny poor guys live — but when you dig a bit deeper, the pros and cons of poverty tourism become much more complicated.

What Do You Do On A Poverty Tour?

While poverty tours exist in all parts of the world — even in developed countries, there are tours of the immigrant zone of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, or around poor areas of Houston or New York — the most common tours you’ll hear about are those of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, the shanty towns in South Africa, and of the squatter settlements of India, particularly in large cities like Mumbai. Some of these trips have been running for the best part of two decades, usually quietly, without heavy promotion. Let’s take a look at three different poverty tours to try to better understand the situation.

Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Favela Dona Marta, Rio de Janeiro
Favela Dona Marta, Rio de Janeiro © exfordy

Favela tours are perhaps the most well-known form of poverty tourism. And perhaps because they’re known, and many tourists want to take one, they push the barrier of what is acceptable — at least that’s my opinion. One of the original guide companies, Favela Tours, which has been operating over fifteen years already, do it right: the company founder Marcelo Armstrong knows a lot about the complicated situation of poverty in Rio, and is keen to show tourists that even in favelas, the people are striving to develop, and he takes his tours to community day care centers and radio stations run by the locals. But the business of taking tourists into favelas has been around long enough now that less reputable entrepreneurs are also trying to take their cut of the tourist dollar, and that’s clearly bad for the favelas and bad for the tourists.

Township Tours, South Africa

On the outskirts of Johannesburg, and on the edge of Cape Town, along with other parts of South Africa, tourists can visit the squatter townships. A friend of mine lived in Cape Town and when I asked her for traveling tips, taking a township tour came high on her list. I never did, but I’ve often wondered why so many people want to.

The township tours around Soweto, for example, seemed to spring up more by accident, arising from demand. Bus loads of tourists bound for other tourist attractions drove through the townships to stop and take a look from the safety of their buses. A few locals decided to offer tours around the townships so they could make some money out of the passing trade. With security tightened for visitors, they can see the huts where people live without water or electricity, and understand what tiny and cramped conditions the people live in.

Dharavi Slums of Mumbai, India

Antop Hill Squatter Slum, Mumbai
Antop Hill Squatter Slum, Mumbai © wordcat57

Since 2006, Reality Tours and Travel has offered visitors to Mumbai the chance to tour the Dharavi area of the city, dubbed “the biggest slum of Asia”. A young British guy, who had the idea for the trips after visiting the favelas of Rio, teamed up with a local Indian man to run authentic walking tours around Dharavi. They want to show the reality of life there and at the same time dispel the myth that the poor there are lazy or helpless, but rather working hard to improve their lives.

What I like about the Dharavi tours is the effort taken to keep the tours grounded in reality and avoid the possibilities of voyeurism as much as possible. Tourists are not allowed to take photographs, and the groups are kept to a maximum of five people so it doesn’t look too intrusive. They also use guides who are very knowledgeable about the area, so they can answer all your questions, and the company gives 80% of the after tax profit from the tours to local NGOs to help alleviate poverty.

Can Poverty Tourism Really Help the Poor?

Here’s a view on the poverty and tourism debate from somebody who hasn’t experienced poverty: at the 28th FITUR tourism trade fair in January, 2008, Spain’s King Juan Carlos focused his opening speech on telling delegates that expanding tourism into poverty-stricken countries is not just interesting or desirable, but necessary:

Tourism is a driver of understanding between peoples. It is an effective instrument with which to eradicate poverty and to improve the legitimate aspirations and well-being of citizens.

Is this really the case? Well, of course, it depends. Personally, I think that if it’s managed by real, interested professionals, and sensible ground rules are set — don’t take photographs, don’t give money or candy away (donate through a suitable charity or organization instead), stay in small groups, and so on — then perhaps poverty tourism really does provide some benefits for the locals. And at this stage in its development, when it’s mostly undertaken by fairly seasoned travelers who are genuinely interested in understanding more about a country and its people, it seems that such tours can truly be managed in this way. My fear is that poverty tourism could become a more mainstream activity, and money-hungry travel agents will start sending in large air-conditioned buses full of ignorant tourists snapping hundreds of pictures, and then the rot will really set in.

If you decide that a poverty tour is something you want to do, then I’d recommend reading these tips put out by Budget Travel. This piece provides all kinds of advice from how you can contribute to the community you visit, what you should and shouldn’t do, and opinions on taking photographs, bringing children with you and chatting to the locals.

Have you been on a poverty tour? Would you choose to take one in the future? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

  1. Hmmm… This one’s complicated depending on the location as well as the other factors you mentioned, I think.

    For example I was pretty creeped out to hear about the township tours of the Cape Flats area, outside Cape Town (which, so I’ve heard, involve buses with bulletproof glass) but on the other hand there are a lot of reasons to want to visit Soweto besides its poverty – it is where so many vital moments in the anti-Apartheid fight took place, I wouldn’t want to visit Johannesburg without seeing it. And if a guided tour was the only way to safely do so…

    (Though I’ve heard that Soweto is actually gentrifying rapidly, and that it’s a trendy nightlife / live music / dining area for people from tamer parts of Jo’burg… Sort of like going to Harlem to eat soul food and catch a show at the Apollo, I guess?)

  2. I’ve really been enjoying this series, Amanda. A lot of food for thought.

    You and Eva are both right about the complicated part. I’ve often considered this during our travels, volunteer or otherwise. In the end, I suppose you hope to leave a place better than how you found it somehow.

    Great article, great series. Thanks!

  3. Thanks Eva and Dan. Yep, it’s definitely complicated … and hard to really summarize in a page or two, it’s a topic that could be debated for hours and hours. Glad you’re enjoying the series.

  4. Very nice article. I took a favela tour in 2003 from Marcelo Armstrong’s company and thought it offered a brilliant insight into the favelas, certainly one of the highlights of my trip. While on the tour I saw some of the other tour operators cruise by and just got the feeling that their tours lacked the same integrity.

    In many ways, most tourism is a type of voyeurism. But, somehow, it’s generally accepted and cherished that we should go around and look at how the rich people lived or are still living. I’m finding myself wanting to do less of that.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Jeff, it’s interesting to hear your perspective on the favela tours. There definitely seem to be “good” and “bad” versions.

  6. The next time I am in Rio with my Brazilian family I am going to have a serious word with some of those gringos in those jeeps and ask them if it makes them feel comfortable gawping at the poor and taking photos. Do they do the same in their OWN cities where they live? It’s disgusting!

  7. I don’t believe people are taking pictures of the impoverished to mock, but in disbelief that people really do live in povety. People want to understand why a government would want to keep their people impoverished. I saw SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE it made me sick to know people really do live in true poverity. Something I would never survive. These poor people are truly the strong ones.

  8. I just wonder why you consider it bad to take photos in a slum, and why “good” tours forbid taking photos. Many people love to be photographed, and in many countries people will actually ask to have a picture taken.People may feel pride in a portrait of them, be happy to show themselves and to see that others are interested in them, in their beauty and singularity.

    People comment here that these tours are “disgusting”. They seem to assume that poverty is something bad, evil, vilifying, something to be ashamed of. But it is not. Poverty isn’t bad, it’s just difficult. Life is harder when you’re poor, but not necessarily less fulfilling and definitively not less dignified. The point is, slum dwellers can be quite proud about their lives, about their struggle, about their courage and energy in the face of hardships we can’t even imagine.

    This being said, I’ve been to Rio many times, and never have taken a favela tour. But all people that did told me that it was a great experience, that has nothing to do with voyeurism, but with showing the dignity and optimism of those we consider outside of society.

    1. I think it’s important to keep in mind that just about all the money from favela tours are benefiting those who “run” the favelas, not the average favela residents themselves. The residents who are “featured” for interviews, meet and greets, photo opps, etc., and those who rent out their homes, are all carefully chosen and cultivated by those “running things” on the inside. The average favela resident does not get the opportunity, due to fear tactics and intimidation and lack of power in the favela community structure, to voice any complaints about the tourism in their own neighborhoods.

  9. Hey Amanda.

    Nice article. In fact even though I am in Mumbai and pass by Dharavi frequently , I was not aware of the structured tours.

    In fact , as global citizens we don’t have to feel guilty or pity towards the underprivileged. We just have to be more generous.

    We have to start looking at the poor not as a burden, but “as resilient and creative entrepreneurs”. In fact todays poor will be the engine of growth for next next couple of years. In fact Dharavi is one such hub where lots of small time entrepreneurs make leather goods and other innovative products.

  10. I hope Poverty Tourism can lead to something good like raising awareness leading to equality of humanity and not the other way around..

  11. A thought provoking notion and discussion !

    I view tourism and poverty as two seperate items or agendas. Essentially, your focus is premised on gearing tourism to poverty stricken areas; thereby providing an opportunity for people to engage in understanding poverty through tourism.

    Indeed, when one considers tourism as an economic (global) activity, it includes the management of visitors to different places worlwide through a structured and organised series of tours (i.e. travel, transport, “where to go?”, “what to do?”, etc), including different services (i.e. health, accommodation, transfer services, food and beverages, “how to get there?”, etc) and specific activities (sports, business, trade, entertainment, events, i.e. carnivals or parades, etc), heritage and history, arts and culture, nature, etc) that enrich the tourists’ experience and understanding (or appreciation) of visiting a particular country or place.

    In addressing the concept of “poverty tourism” it could be interpreted in either two ways – firstly that “poverty tourism” engages local communities of such empoverised areas, and contributes genuinely to the quality of life of some people of those affected communities, in a positive and empowering way, with real measured values (i.e. where do tourists stay? do they stay at empoverished communities, i.e. a Bed and Breakfast, a guesthouse, etc, how much time do tourists spend at these communities, what can tourists do once they are there? how are people in these communities generate income from tourism, etc … the secondly, that “poverty-tourism” can be interpreted as a romantic interpretation of what it means to be impoverished, and hence leave a sad legacy to the communities affected by such a concept of tourism.

    I have been fortunate to have worked in Alexandra, in Johannesburg, a small (approximately 350,000) township approximately 2,0 km from Sandton (a growing financial hub in Johannesburg, due to the decentralisation of the former Johannesburg CBD). Alexandra, like most empoverished communities (or townships) has its own pros and cons. Much intervention (or investment) has been spearheaded by local and provincial government to improve the infrastructure, services, etc. of that particular township. Included in the Alexandra Reconstruction Program, was a focus on tourism opportunities. I don’t want to expand too much on this program, but what is evident, is that it focused on areas within the township linked to a rich history of struggle (including the development of the Nelson Mandela Interpretation Facility) through a tourist route within the township. PArt of the project was not completed in its entirety, and this has resulted in “vacuum” in terms of the objectives of the project. One still requires to travel to Alexandra through a tour guide or tour operator ! With 350,000 people living in Alexandra, the project gave opportunity to about five tour operators ! Surely this is a poor contribution to the lives of people livng in the Alexandra township. The same is evident in Soweto ! However, the correct approach would be to certainly improve the infrastructure so that people may indivdually or collectively invest in these so-called poverty townships. Development in Soweto has been evidently significant and exciting, focusing on development of heritage sites of significance, commercial activities (i.e. there’s a shopping mall in Soweto), improving sports venues (i.e. the Orlando Stadium in Soweto), developing green open areas (i.e parks, and walkways, etc).

    I have also been fortunate to visit the Favela of Bairro da Rocinha (near Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro). At the time of the tour, we were told when and when not to take photos (as some residents think tourists are police informers, and might be “spying” on drug trafficing activities),, but not once on the tour were we given the opportunity to engage with the communities (not even, to buy a simple coke to drink !) The Tour Operator had included food and drinks on the tour, and whilst we were given the opportunity to take a walk through a smallpart of the area, we did not have the opportunity to engage in the quality of life of people, nor did we have the opportunity to engage in some of the activities at the Favela !

    In some respects, I beleive that the areas that are stricken with poverty have to be understood with respect to a number of factors (migration, work opportunity, land ownership issues, access to business, access to basic services – toilets, water, sanitation, electricity, etc), the management of such poverty areas, the access to health, the access to education etc. The notion of “poverty tourism” can be interpreted as extremely contraversial in this context !

    If one takes a look at major tourism attractions world-wide, people generally go to specific place to visit specific sites of interest. For instance, in Paris, one would have to do the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the St Germain and St Michel Areas, the Notre Dame, etc …yet there’s an area known as Barbes-Rocherout near to Montemartre that has evidence of poverty (mostly migrant communities from North Africa, etc). It can be argued that the approach to extending tourism to empoverished communities is a correct one … but not simply for the fact that a tourist is to see poverty ! i.e. what is meaningful to people who live in these areas?, what stories are there to share?, what about business opportunities? etc …

    Poverty is not a recent phenomenon …it has been in existence for many years ! And what may be defined “poverty” to one, can be described as opportunity and happiness for others ! “poverty tourism” can not be viewed in isolation from its broader contexts. If one makes places beautiful and pleasant to experience to everybody (both residents and visitors), tourism will flourish, our visits to many places will become memorable, “worth-going-to”, etc … Some poverty-sticken areas arise due to mismanagement of land and are generally driven by people in search of work closer to urban centres. It is noted that poverty exists in rural areas too.

    I have been on a third trip to Rio recently, and did not contemplate visiting “favelas” again … simply because there is a repeat of the tour with no notable “gems” to visit …(by gems, I mean, places and activities that overwhelm one, that call for one to re-visit those places, etc) …. If tourism is to genuinely contribute to the lives of the poor, indeed one must ensure that people living in these empoverished communities have access to education and business-skills that allows them to mobilise and re-organise a localised economy which drives benefit from tourism …

    I could go on …

    Best wishes …

  12. Dear Amanda,

    Have you ever wondered if the people living in such squalor and filth ever complaint for the kind of life they are living, I think they are as happy as pigs in muck. Thank God that we humans have a tendency to adapt to whatever situation we find ourselves in. I think if there was a system by which these people’s happiness can be measured, it would give startling results indeed to find that their happiness measures on a much higher scale than people living in luxury, may be this is the reason why Poverty tourism is such a popular game for the rich, deriving happiness from supposed misery of others. I do not understand who is fooling whom.

  13. Amanda,
    To me , even writing about this makes you a sick person. Seriously, why do white people like you would love to revel in misery of others. All the religions of the world have talked about helping out the poor and miserly and not to have fun at their expense.
    I know that poverty is a curse and we need to eradicate it but constantly demeaning people by making them feel like zoo animals is despicable. I can understand the country you are coming from and the people you represent. Your forefather slaughtered and murdered thousand of aboriginals to conquer and occupy forcibly a land which was not even yours at all. And back in the Island that you call GB ( why I dont know), your people
    destroyed ancient civilizations that were on the way to progress and peace. All the world problems that you are seeing today is not because of us Indians or Brazilians, its because of the fact that your native white people started exploring the world to fulfill your greedy desires.
    During the British occupation of India, hundreds of thousand of Indegenious people were killed. But do we receive an apology , no. Do we ever receive an apology froom any white person ( male or female) , oppressor or oppressed , no because your oppressed and oppressors stand at higher ground than ours.

    Indian may have poverty in terms of material world but I can see a clear cut poverty in terms of mental world in your kind of ‘developed’ world. One of the reason you seek out poverty is that you can claim to be superior to the blacks and browns of the world. Your overconsumption and treating the world as a place to be consumed have brought untold miseries on the world.

    But you know the best part, you took our wealth for 300 years and now its coming back to us . We are slowly developing and your greed cannot keep generating the wealth that you so much looted from the eastern world. But when you have poverty say in Brisbane Adelade or anywhere else, I wont come for a tourism , I would come to help your people.

  14. And people who say they saw slumdog millionaires to wake up and smell air( it is not foul). Go and visit slum for what they are for ( plenty of people living in there to make life as maids, entrepreneurs, small scale businessmen or womens, helpers, taxi drivers, lower government officers . And they are all EDUCATED unlike the people found in ghettos in western world

  15. Here’s a book coming out on India by a young traveler. After a great intro in Laos of all places .. he gets into a great first chapter on WHY slums exist in India … misguided policies, etc .. and why just economic growth alone is unlikely to make slums disappear.

  16. Just to give a quick comment: I have seen many tours here in Rio that provide bullet-proof hummers as vehicles for their tours. THAT I am not ok with.

  17. You know something Amanda, I can understand your curiosity to see and experience poverty for the first time in your life. It probably helps you realize how lucky you are, and appreciate life more, and be thankful for what you got.

    But those people don’t want to be an object of your curiosity ( or voyeurism), I’m sury those communities would let you in and talk to them if you have something better to offer them.

    You don’t need to hire a tour and waste your money like that, to experience how they live. There are plenty of volunteering programs that actually visit those places and help them build houses, and donate stuff for the children.

    Try to show some compassion and not just amusement

    You’re more than welcome to visit my country.

    Best regards

    Martin Payet
    Lima, Peru

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