Slum tourism turns poverty into a commodity

Katherine George

Life Editor


The township of Vrygrond, a quick drive from Cape Town, South Africa, is located on a dry flat wasteland and only recently gained access to electricity, running water and a functioning sewage system. While volunteering with a community outreach program that aids in keeping children from Vrygrond off the streets, I received a tour of the town.

Around 1.7 million South Africans live in informal settlements, like slums and townships. Similar to many other slums, Vrygrond is socially and economically deprived. Houses are made of rough materials like scrap metal, anything that can provide temporary shelter. There is a high unemployment rate, with nearly 60 per cent of the population affected by or involved in crime.

Since the emergence of poverty tourism in the last couple of decades, travellers have wrestled with the ethical and moral concerns of touring the world’s most impoverished areas.

Proponents say this form of tourism can be seen as an educational experience that enlightens travellers who live a sheltered and privileged life. Westerners see first hand the extreme conditions and hardships people suffer which encourages them to make a difference. However, the voyeuristic holiday ends and many tourists return home only to get swept back into their daily lives.

The townships in South Africa are a dark reminder of what took place during Apartheid. In the late 1980s, township tours emerged into the mainstream tourism industry in South Africa as a means for the white residents of Cape Town to view the ‘other side’ of their city, which was strictly segregated.

Unlike other tours in areas of the world where travellers view historical sites haunted by a dark past, township tours allow visitors to view communities that continue on in their impoverished conditions. These areas are not a tourist attraction, but a present day living tragedy.

Township tours emphasize the disparities of income and wealth around the world as the world’s wealthiest and most privileged view the world’s poorest people. In areas plagued by crime, it’s not the best idea to highlight inequality between individuals. Despite the fact that tourists are advised to dress down their appearance and leave their valuables at home, the local residents are extremely aware of their economic and social differences.

Many tour companies offer walking tours, which are much less intrusive and avoid the feeling of visitors gazing down on local residents from large vehicles. Small walking tours provide the opportunity to interact with local residents face to face. Tourists can make personal donations to families, businesses and purchase products that might be for sale. However, this does not change the fact that individuals are touring a community in order to briefly survey the harsh poverty individuals suffer on a daily basis.

Handing out donations to individuals is usually an ineffective form of help. A more productive form of assistance is to provide food, clean water, school supplies or offer funding to a local organization that is involved in building a sustainable community, slum tourism only offers the appearance of benefitting local residents. It promotes this notion by putting some tourist money back into the community and offering a few jobs to locals as tour guides.

The harsh reality is people who are suffering in many aspects of their lives are suddenly a tourist attraction and seen as a commodity to tour operators. Many tour companies visit a local household as a highlight of the tour, perhaps providing some money to the family for their services and cooperation with the tour operation. However, host households and even local guides pay is unregulated. And in the meantime, while some tour operators may dole out a few dollars here and there to the impoverished hosts, the whole encounter may more often entail a further loss of dignity for those being visited.

It is extremely important to educate affluent populations of the economic and social disparities around the world. And seeing is most definitely believing. But traipsing through a community to gawk at their way of life is intrusive and turns poverty into a commodity.