You can’t assuage your guilt by gawking at the poor.
A few years ago, when I was researching Indian tour companies online, I came across a banner ad. It had a small graphic with pictures of thin, half-dressed Indian boys with dirt on their faces, and the words “Slum Walks” on top of most of the image. It evoked that ever-frustrating thought of “how is this even a thing?” that just makes you spiral.
I didn’t come back to the idea of slum walks for years, but it stuck in the back of my head and bothered me every time I went back to India to visit my family. And a recent Google search showed me that yes, they’re still a thing.
Just to make it clear, slum walks are exactly what they sound like. You walk around in a slum. I wish there was more depth to it, just to make the idea of it less disgusting, but that’s really it — you pay real money to someone who doesn’t live in a slum, on the sometimes-provided promise that the money will be funnelled back into uplifting the people living in the slum, to walk around a slum and look at impoverished people. If I’m being too blunt, and not acknowledging that some people do this from the good of their hearts, motivated by the desire to help, it’s because I don’t actually believe that people’s motivation is coming from an entirely trustworthy place, nor is that motivation translating into something substantial in terms of social activism.
One of the first results when you Google “slum walks” is for a TripAdvisor page for tours run in Delhi by an organization called Providing Education To Everyone, or PETE. The service has five stars with 290 reviews. It took about 30 seconds into scrolling through the reviews for the slum walks for me to start crying.
“I noticed no visible resentment, just friendly greetings to someone visiting their neighborhood. I’m not suggesting that they like living in these conditions — no one in their right mind would. But to be able to show this level of grace while living under these conditions — pretty humbling,” writes a five-star reviewer. Where there are negative reviews, it’s because the poverty isn’t up to the tourists’ exacting standards. “It was a somehow disappointing, since the REAL slum where we were supposed to go was bulldozered away completely recently. Compared to the Dharavi slum tour in Mumbai, this tour was by far not as interesting,” writes a reviewer who gave them only two stars.
India has unbelievable economic disparity in which people who are “lower” caste, non-Hindu, trans, and/or disabled are disproportionately affected by poverty and homelessness. Though I was born and lived in India for a chunk of my childhood, I’ve never known poverty. I immigrated to Canada with my family where I’ve been afforded, thanks to my parents and to my own social privileges, stable housing and an elite education. My family has made several trips back to India to visit with relatives since we moved to Canada. In many ways, when I return to India, I am a tourist, and while I cannot speak for the Indians who are forced into poverty, I do feel a deep sense of frustration knowing that Indians are reduced to objects, usually by white tourists, in the practice of slum walks.
Slum walks/tours are not a new concept; in the 1830s, wealthy Americans (including Abraham Lincoln) would go “slumming” in the Five Points neighborhood of New York to see how the other half lived. That has evolved into modern “poorism,” as Travel Weekly called it a decade ago, which they defined as “a somewhat derogatory label applied to slum tours or other types of outings that bring visitors into extremely impoverished areas of the world.” Slum tours have expanded to Rio, Nairobi, South Africa, Mexico, and India, among other countries. Much like how slum walks in India exemplify how poverty and homelessness is disproportionately felt by marginalized people, the same is true of slum tours in places like South Africa, where tourists can engage in slum walks of all-Black townships that were most violently affected by Apartheid.
In a 2007 Globe and Mail article, David Fennell, professor of Geography and Tourism Studies at Brock University and author of Tourism Ethics, highlights Western tourists’ sense of entitlement when it comes to travel. “Everest. Antarctica. The Amazon. Wherever,” he says. “If you put your money down, you have a right to go.” But, simply put, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. People living in slums have as much of a right to consent to their interactions and experiences as anyone else. Just because slums are open, walkable, and don’t have “traditional” borders does not mean that we have any right to walk into people’s homes and lives for the benefit of our own education. Not only do tour companies not have people’s consent when they bring in groups of tourists to walk around the slum and investigate people’s houses and living conditions, most tourists who do slum tours will not be able to communicate with the people living in slums.
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Where companies have people’s consent, it is important to question how this consent was obtained, how much about the reality of slum walks was explained to locals, how clear companies are about the payments they are receiving in comparison to how much they are giving back to the people living in poverty, and how much of a choice that consent really is. The removal of people’s agency and their transformation into objects during slum tours is something that doesn’t seem worth the small amount of paternalistic charity that might come their way. But it’s hard to say no if it’s that or nothing.
Slum walks are voyeuristic, and they commodify poverty and homelessness for the benefit of tourists. Yes, slum tours are at best a band-aid solution to the problem of systemic poverty in countries like India and cannot transform people’s living conditions overnight, but there is not much record of what work these companies are actually doing with tourists’ money in terms of activism, or helping those who are the subject of their tours. In a recent NowThis video, Samantha Nutt argues that what locals really need is to be empowered and supported in working on their communities themselves, but this is not in the interest of tour companies because it limits potential revenue.
After all, tour companies are companies first, and charitable organizations second, and if profits were coming from showing people the destitute conditions of people living in slums, would it be in a capitalistic tour company’s best interest to make those conditions better?
The irony is that slum tours could never be the “authentic” experience they advertise themselves as, because they completely center the experience of the visitor, and tokenize the experience of poor locals to appease tourists. This kind of “poverty porn” harms the people who need to be helped. It mischaracterizes poverty in many ways and perpetuates damaging myths that only keep poverty alive. Slum tours don’t teach about the systemic inequalities that create poverty and homelessness; they don’t address how a lot of tourism actually hurts locals. Instead, they weaponize tourists’ guilt at facing poverty on such a grand scale, and serve to make tourists feel better about themselves for using their vacation time to see “real” hardship.
If profits were coming from showing people the destitute conditions of people living in slums, would it be in a capitalistic tour company’s best interest to make those conditions better?
It’s irresponsible to ignore poverty when you travel, and slum tours promote themselves as transformative learning experiences precisely because they know it’ll attract tourists who are trying to be compassionate and thoughtful. But engaging in things like slum tours doesn’t actually help the subjects of the tours.
There are small ways you can travel ethically, such as supporting family- or independently-owned restaurants that use local ingredients, locally-based organizations with worthwhile ongoing projects that are bettering their communities, and independently owned stores and other businesses. If you want to learn more about historical, systemic inequalities in the places you are visiting, do this by reading about it and having conversations with people who may be interested in sharing their knowledge with you. With the internet at your disposal, you can access this information in advance and make meaningful choices while you’re travelling instead of taking part in exploitative, unhelpful things like slum tours. Because while they may sell themselves that way, gawking at poverty will never be charitable.