Monday, March 10, 2008

Poverty Voyeurism

Slum Visits: Tourism or Voyeurism?;

Slum tourism, or “poorism,” as some call it, is catching on. From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the townships of Johannesburg to the garbage dumps of Mexico, tourists are forsaking, at least for a while, beaches and museums for crowded, dirty — and in many ways surprising — slums. When a British man named Chris Way founded Reality Tours and Travel in Mumbai two years ago, he could barely muster enough customers for one tour a day. Now, he’s running two or three a day and recently expanded to rural areas.

Slum tourism isn’t for everyone. Critics charge that ogling the poorest of the poor isn’t tourism at all. It’s voyeurism. The tours are exploitative, these critics say, and have no place on an ethical traveler’s itinerary.

“Would you want people stopping outside of your front door every day, or maybe twice a day, snapping a few pictures of you and making some observations about your lifestyle?” asked David Fennell, a professor of tourism and environment at Brock University in Ontario. Slum tourism, he says, is just another example of tourism’s finding a new niche to exploit. The real purpose, he believes, is to make Westerners feel better about their station in life. “It affirms in my mind how lucky I am — or how unlucky they are,” he said.

Not so fast, proponents of slum tourism say. Ignoring poverty won’t make it go away. “Tourism is one of the few ways that you or I are ever going to understand what poverty means,” said Harold Goodwin, director of the International Center for Responsible Tourism in Leeds, England. “To just kind of turn a blind eye and pretend the poverty doesn’t exist seems to me a very denial of our humanity.”

The crucial question, Mr. Goodwin and other experts say, is not whether slum tours should exist but how they are conducted. Do they limit the excursions to small groups, interacting respectfully with residents? Or do they travel in buses, snapping photos from the windows as if on safari? ...

By most accounts, slum tourism began in Brazil 16 years ago, when a young man named Marcelo Armstrong took a few tourists into Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela, or shantytown. His company, Favela Tour, grew and spawned half a dozen imitators. Today, on any given day in Rio, dozens of tourists hop in minivans, then motorcycles and venture into places even Brazil’s police dare not tread. Organizers insist the tours are safe, though they routinely check security conditions. Luiz Fantozzi, founder of the Rio-based Be a Local Tours, says that about once a year he cancels a tour for security reasons.

The tours may be safe, but they can be tense. Rajika Bhasin, a lawyer from New York, recalls how, at one point during a favela tour, the guide told everyone to stop taking pictures. A young man approached the group, smiling and holding a cocked gun. Ms. Bhasin said she didn’t exactly feel threatened, “just very aware of my surroundings, and aware of the fact that I was on this guy’s turf.”

Still, she said, the experience, which included visiting galleries featuring the work of local artists, was positive. “Honestly, I would say it was a life-changing experience,” Ms. Bhasin said. Saying she understood the objections, she parried, “It has everything to do with who you are and why you’re going.”

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