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Slum Tourism: Commercialization of Poverty

A little girl is desperately looking for the last drop of water from empty bottles and cans that are scattered on the street. There is a shack, a crudely built house near the girl, and a boy wearing a ripped t-shirt is walking out from the shack. A blue, plastic vinyl sheet is the only thing that protects the boy’s shack from the heavy tropical rainfalls. On the other side of the street, groups of people with neat dresses and expensive cameras are busy pointing them towards the little girl and boy. This is a scene of slum tourism in Jakarta. In March, the start of the new semester, some Kingos might recall beautiful memories of their winter vacation trips, and some might plan for their next trip like an early bird who intends to find new unique tourist destinations at a discounted price. Slum tourism is one of the most unique forms of tourism and is rapidly increasing in popularity. The Sungkyun Times (SKT) will scrutinize slum tourism by analyzing its definition, controversies, and unfamiliar tours that have commercialized poverty.

What is Slum Tourism?

◆Slum Tourism?

The word ‘Slum Tourism’ is made up of two words, slum and tourism. For a more exact meaning of the word ‘slum’, the United Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) defines the term ‘slum’ as “the vast informal settlements with the most visible manifestation of poverty in urban areas especially in developing cities.” In addition, the United Nations (UN) refers to a slum as a “declining and polluted part of the cities with the lowest quality of life.” Therefore, slum tourism essentially means going on a trip to an impoverished place in order to observe and experience human lives in poverty. Slum tourism, however, is quite different from traveling around urban, regenerated cities, which were once slums but have succeeded in attracting tourists through various development projects. The aim of slum tourism is usually to watch the polluted and impoverished reality in slums, while the aim of traveling to regenerated cities is to see the clean, beautiful, and positive scenes of a city that was once a destitute area. For example, Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan, which was once deemed to be a slum, launched a city regeneration project through a partnership between artists and the local residents. Gamcheon Culture Village became quite picturesque with various artworks going up around the area, which now help to attract more than 1.5 million tourists a year, who are eager to take beautiful photos. Slum tourism, however, is not traveling to cities that were once slums but that have now gained a positive image. It is visiting a slum that has an exisiting negative image of poverty and poor sanitation.

Slum tourism largely gained its popularity through its emergence from areas with an existing tourist population, mostly focused on historical sites and other attractions. Dharavi in India, Jakarta in Indonesia, and the slums in New Delhi are famous places for slum tourism with more than 20,000 visitors annually. Global Exchange, the global human rights organization, also operates slum tourism in more than 30 countries. Global Exchange provides opportunities for various experiences: meeting with children who make their livelihoods on the railroads, playing soccer, eating lunch with the residents in their houses, and observing how people who survive in the debris, live.

walkthisway.cineuropa.org/A slum tourist is taking photos near the river.

◆The Past and Present of Slum Tourism

Slum tourism is not a new concept. The history of slum tourism can be traced back to 1880s in London. Around this time, the upper class in England became curious about how the ‘other half’, with no power, lived. So, they started touring slums under police protection, and this activity became known as ‘slumming’. As slumming became a popular activity for the upper class in England, the desire to compare other slums, like those in New York, also grew in popularity. Soon, in order to satisfy this desire, travel agencies appeared and started providing guide books and package tours. In spite of the growing popularity of slumming for a few decades, during the periods surrounding the World Wars, many people lost their interest in slumming.

In contrast, in the 1980s, bus tours around New York’s Harlem slums, a predominantly Black community, restarted. Slum tourism again, became one of the most popular activities for the upper classes. In particular, as Black music like jazz and blues came to meet its heyday, slum tourism around Harlem increased. At the end of 2000, more than 80,000 people were visiting Harlem per year. Moreover, after the apartheid in South Africa, the segregation of nonwhites from social, political, and cultural authorities, tourists who wanted to see apartheid repression gathered and went on slum tours to South Africa. During this period, slum tourists were just voyeurs, who wanted to see the slums from a third person’s point of view. Unlike the past, however, slum tourism is now a legitimate global industry, giving tourists the chance to dissolve into resident’s lives and communicate directly with them.

bigthink.com/England’s upper classes are slumming.

Controversies Surrounding Slum Tourism


•Reducing Prejudice

It can be argued that Slum tourism reduces prejudice on slum residents. Slums are often considered old, dirty, and dangerous, and these perceptions have often been passed on towards slum residents, too. These perceptions have made people think all slum residents are dirty, have no energy, and are starving. Proponents of slum tourism, argues people are able to dispel such bias and leads slum residents to dissolve into society. For instance, in Dharavi, the most famous slum in Mumbai, after a two hour ‘slum tour’ at a cost of \4,800, tourists were able to reduce their negative perceptions towards slum residents according to the New York Times. Some tourists were intrigued by the fact that most products were being recycled in the slum, while others were impressed by the huge amount of fruit and presents they received from the residents. Eventually, through slum tourism, tourists were able to reduce their prejudices towards slum residents.

•Motivation for Beneficence

Slum tourism can be a strong stimulator for tourists to donate to, or help slum residents. The pain of poverty is a concept that many people will never understand without really experiencing it themselves. Slum tourism helps tourists to experience poverty, provoking the tourists to take real action for the slum residents. For instance, a French school teacher went on a slum tour in Jakarta and was shocked by what she saw, little girls were close to death due to starvation. She was also shocked by the fact that hundreds of children were not attending school. Therefore, she is now planning to establish a remote school in Jakarta.

•Economic Benefits

Historically, for most slums, their local economy is heavily dependent on underground black-market dealings and prostitution. In these situations, slum tourism brings economic benefits to the residents and energizes the cities. In more detail, some slum tour agencies employ locals as guides and into other public positions. Furthermore, residents are able to earn money on their own by selling arts and crafts to tourists. Additionally, some tour agencies return more than 50% of the profits earned through slum tourism to the residents. The Dharavi slum tour agency, Reality Tours and Travel, returns 80% of the profits to Reality Gives, a philanthropic organization in Dharavi. Reality Gives educates teachers, activates local schools, and teaches sports to children.


•Unfair Position of Slum Residents

Of course, when it comes to slum tourism, tour agencies are bound to have a stronger position than the slum residents. Therefore, profits gained from this tourism can be divided unfairly. Many slum residents who suffer from poverty are relatively weak, which means it is more difficult to voice their opinions regarding fair treatment. Accordingly, only a few companies return their profits to residents. More than 80% of the companies do not return their profits and seemingly do not care much about the residents. Thus, it is very easy for tour agencies to violate the privacy of the residents.

•The Social Stigma of Poverty

The difference between tourists and residents is mainly due to the disparity in their wealth. This fact arouses the question as to whether the tourists have the right to examine other’s lives and sometimes violate their privacy only because they have more money. Another name for slum tourism is ‘poorism’, which is made up of the words poor and tourism. This can contribute towards the social stigma of poverty.

•Pornography of Poverty

Slum tourism is a kind of tourism that creates a form of entertainment out of humanity’s hardships for commercial intentions. For instance, a 16-year-old girl, who lives in Kibera, Kenya, confronted foreigners when she was younger. She was suffering from starvation. Slum tourists, however, stared at her, pointed their cameras towards her, talked about her, and finally left her behind. In addition, when she was giving birth at home by herself, because she had no money to go to the hospital, tourists came into her house and again took pictures. Her dignity as a human has been severely damaged as a result of slum tourism.

Other Products of the Commercialization of Poverty

As slum tourism has gained popularity and has received attention for being a unique tourism product, tourism products that commercialize poverty have started to appear in various forms. Here are the three main tourism products which attempt to earn money by commercializing poverty.

•Fake Slum Tourism

Slum tourism has gained in popularity and more and more people are now willing to experience life in the slums. Some people think a slum is usually dirty and dangerous with bad facilities and a high possibility of becoming a victim of crime. In order to deviate from these concepts, fake slum tourism has emerged. In South Africa near Bloemfontein, the Emoya Luxury Hotel and Spa has constructed a slum tourist attraction called Shanty Town. It is for people who want to experience slums in a safe and clean environment.

People can experience slums by sleeping in a shanty shack, which is a flimsy house made up of wood and tin. Tourists have to get water from outside the house, and burn any leftover trash. Fake slum tourism costs about $82 per night, which is approximately half the money the average South African resident earns a month. Shanty Town advertises that there is no danger of becoming a victim of crime, or of catching diseases while experiencing slum life. The Emoya Hotel Shanty Town advertises that they have good facilities with a safe environment, and wireless internet. Although it seems fun, its advertisement rather increases the perception that real slums are all dangerous and have more criminals.

•Businesses that have Commercialized the Poverty of the Homeless

Some companies are now commercializing the lives of the homeless. In Sweden, the Faktum Hotel researched the top 10 most popular places for the homeless to sleep, and established a system to reserve those places. This system is for tourists who want to travel and experience the harsh realities of the poor lives of Sweden. By paying $15 a day, tourists are able to sleep under a bridge, in an abandoned paper factory, or in the park. This kind of product, of course, pushes the homeless out of their only shelters. In addition, Mokum Events, a tour agency in Amsterdam, provides a one mile tour with a homeless tour guide. By paying $16 per person, tourists can tour the Netherlands with the homeless. Tourists beg for food with the homeless and walk the streets. Some people argue that the one mile tour with the homeless helps them to become independent and earn money. Nevertheless, there are those who are critical of this because the independence comes from begging after all, which does not solve the fundamental problems of homelessness.

•Commercialization of Jjokbang-chon in Korea

It is not only foreign countries that have seen the development of this kind of tourism. Korea has also tried to commercialize poverty by using jjokbang-chon, a Korean slum with shanty houses. In 2015, Dong-gu District Office in Incheon stated that it will establish a jjockbang experience center at Guangyi-buri village, as part of a city regeneration project. Guangyi-buri village is the main jjokbang village, which was formed after the Korean War. Old flimsy houses are gathered in this district. Dong-gu District office planned to accept \10,000 for one night in jjokbang-chon. Citizens, however, were very disappointed by the fact that the local government was seemingly turning others’ hardships into a means of earning money.

the-village.ru/Shanty Town in South Africa

Some people insist experiencing poverty through slum tourism is just like experiencing fear in a ghost house at a fun fair. As there are a variety of cases and all countries have different cultural backgrounds, financial situations, and virtues, it is hasty to judge whether slum tourism is a magnificent idea or not. One thing for certain is that Kingos should try to keep in mind that the fear experienced in a ghost house disappears when you leave it. Poverty, however, is a global problem that many people can never escape from. Therefore, it would be dangerous to view slum tourism as an entirely positive form of tourism.

문소희  msohee123@naver.com

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