Category Archives: Opinion piece

Difficulties in promoting tourism to the Tenderloin area in San Francisco

Although most news on slum tourism still focuses on developing countries, slum  tourism is becoming more and more visible in Western Europe and the USA too, as do the ethical discussions surrounding such tourism. A recent example of this is so called tourism to the area of  “Tenderloin” in San Francisco.  Proponents who want to develop this kind of tourism are backed by the city’s mayor who wants to use tourism to promote “a positive identity for the Tenderloin” by posting plaques on buildings to “create great visual interest for those walking down the community’s street”.

I found two points particularly interesting about this article. Firstly it mentions it may be easier to encourage local San Franciscans to visit the area, rather than foreign tourists, given that there are so many things to do in the city. If it will be mainly local people that visit the area, tourism here will be very different from for example township tourism or favela tourism that are mainly visited by foreign visitors. It would be interesting to see if these areas will be represented in different ways because of this, particularly as domestic slum tourism receives very little popular and academic attention.

Another, slightly related point that intrigued me has been the reception of the idea of tourism. One blogger was fairly moderate in his comments and discussed how the area may simply not be suitable for tourism and media-hungry public figures use it for some free publicity. I do not know the area, but this could very well be the case. Others have been less moderate and show the underlying tensions that are so significant with slum tourism. One blogger decided to criticise the idea of tourism to Tenderloin by making fun of it, stereotyping the neighborhood and the people who live there. It would seem articles like this do more to misrepresent and stigmatise impoverished neighborhoods than tourism could ever do. As an author from the Tenderloin area notes, the article is full of banal and overblown generalizations and simply bad taste. Interestingly (s)he then turns to discuss tourism to the Tenderloin and argues that while seeming decent, tourism may actually to turn out very negative:

“Tours of poverty (rephrased as “grittiness” in some attempt at being politically correct) are scummy. There’s a reason that aspects of them are big in South Africa and Germany as it seems that in places where white supremacists were/are big, they love that shit. It’s like going to a human zoo for them. This of course fits in line with how they view anyone not white. Rather shocking that it’d be tried in San Francisco”.

An example of a vehicle that should not be used to visit a slum.

Here the prejudice and stereotype is reserved for those that are interested and take part in such tours. To be fair to this latter blogger in another post (s)he writes about how tourists visit Tenderloin in the vehicle that can be seen on the picture on the right. Even though the tour apparently also visited other parts of the city, using a vehicle like this to visit an area like Tenderloin is seriously distasteful and makes a  negative perspective on slum tourism more understandable.

The example of tourism to this neighborhood and the strong reactions it provokes  show the inherent difficulty involved with slum tourism. The idea of supporting tourism to an impoverished area and posting plaques on buildings seems a useful way of promoting awareness particularly among local people and potentially bring some additional money to poorer communities. However, it is very easy for slum tourism to be vulgarized and this makes it likely to be dismissed out of hand. On the other hand, hiding impoverished areas does not make them go away and provides visitors with only a partial picture of a place.

Again, it seems that one cannot really discuss slum tourism in terms of good and bad. It can be both, depending on the way areas are represented and the extent to which it is done with a respectful attitude to the community.


The blurring of charity and commercial slum tourism

Thinking back of the last post on slumtourism regarding “donor tourism”, I was reminded of an animated discussion I had with a tour guide in the townships in South Africa. The guide argued that local schools that hosted tourists were being “ripped off” by tour operators. He felt that the chairs, tables and/or (note)books that tour operators hand out are too little for the benefits that they gain from visiting these schools. Particularly as these tour operators have been relatively vocal about their charitable efforts.

Whether or not the tour guide was correct, this is obviously a case of a commercial enterprise engaging in some form of charity. Indeed such actions are quite common among slum tourism tour operators, most of which stress their investments in the local community.

At the other end of the spectrum are tours and other activities that are set up and/or run by charitable organisations. These use tourism to gain additional additional income for their work. A number of volunteer tourism organisations also are set up as NGOs and are primarily reliant on tourists to support the organisation.  In a way the aforementioned “donor tourism” may also be seen as belonging in this category. Even though the tours themselves may not be used to gain additional income for the charity here, they are used to ensure donors get a more lasting connection with the charity thus continuing to give (financial) support.

Whilst I have not done a close analysis of such organisations as they are involved in slum tourism, I have noticed how these forms of tourism appear to be more and more merging. Commercial tour operators are getting increasingly involved in charitable practices as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes, while NGOs appear to be more and more take a commercial approach. In a way the two may now at times even be competing with each other. This is an interesting development, albeit one that may make it more difficult for tourists to discern between different forms of slum tourism.

“Donor Tourism”: a new form of slum tourism?

It would seem that a new addition can be made to the  the ever-expanding world of poverty and slum tourism. The following article in English newspaper the Guardian discusses package tours that are organised by NGOs and labels it as “Donor Tourism”.

It provides a discussion of the reasons why (international) NGOs seem to have started to actively use specialist travel agencies to organise group donor trips to poverty stricken areas. In the end they note  “development agencies realise that to build lasting connections between donors and their beneficiaries, increasingly the donor needs to get something back”.

This is an interesting observation as it suggests donors are more and more seen as clients that have a right to expect something back rather than supporting  relief organisations on a more intrinsic altruistic basis. The article also reflects on the worries of those working in emergency relief who in general appear to be unhappy with “Donor tourism”. A further critical discussion is given by Matt Muspratt on his Blog, where he highlights the dangers of such tours for further emphasising people’s gaze of Africa as that of a charity case. As Chimamanda Adichie so eloquently points out such a single narrative can create incomplete stereotypes of impoverished areas and rob people of dignity.

Given this critique, it will be interesting to see how “Donor Tourism” develops and to what extend it will establish itself as a new form of poverty or slum tourism.

Experiences of a slum tourist

In the past month I read a blog post on slum tourism that may provide an interesting read. The author gives a concise summary on slum tourism including some pros and cons and in the end decides that slum tourism is probably here to stay and that it is up to the individual to go or not.

Two things in particular stood out in this post. Firstly the author mentions that some may take offence in including a US city in a discussion of slum tourism, in this case New Orleans. This is an insightful comment as it alludes to the fact that  slum tourism in general continues to be associated with developing countries. However during the “Destination Slum!” conference last December, US ghetto tourism was discussed as a form of slum tourism and remarkably similar issues were found in tourism to these areas. To see slum tourism as part of the developing world, only really shows one part of what it entails.

The second thing that stood out to me was a small comment regarding what to do when visiting slum areas. An (often given) advice is to try not to be obnoxious in flaunting ones relative wealth. In general this would seem a sane and good thing to do. However, it can be taken a step too far. During my own research in the townships around Cape Town, I heard complaints from tour guides about tourists that stripped themselves of all jewellery and things of value due to fears of safety. This meant they often had too little money to buy crafts or give tips to visitor attractions and tour guides, thus limiting financial support for local people involved. Also dressing down to this extent emphasised the “otherness” of the townships and the people living there. Several inhabitants felt that if tourists want to visit them, they should visit them as they are and that the dressing down was demeaning (“they come from abroad, we know they have money… Do they think we would immediately attack them or so?”). I suppose both the extreme flaunting of wealth as well as extreme dressing down may both be seen as disrespectful, albeit in very different ways.

Historical Slumming

Although slumming has quickly become more popular in recent years, it is of course not a new phenomena. During Victorian times it already was a popular pastime for richer middle-class people in London and bigger cities in the United States. An interesting introduction to these earlier forms of slumming can be read in two books that may be worth reading.

Seth Koven writes in his book “Slumming: Sexual and social politics in Victorian London” about how the rich middle-classes started to visit the slums in East London. He describes why people started to visit the slums and how it (partially) shaped Victorian understanding of life. In 2009 Chad Heap wrote a book titled “Slumming: Sexual and racial encounters in American nightlife: 1885-1945.” He argues that slumming was more widespread in US cities than is currently believed. He describes how the initial moralising stance changed and started to provide a platform for artistic, interracial and sexual encounters.

Both books provide an overview of slumming in a different era. They show how at that time slumming also was a contended practice. Also they describe ways in which slumming changed the thinking of people at the time. It would be interesting to see how current forms of slum tourism compare to these historical examples and if anything can be learned from how slum tourism was practised in current times.

It’s not always about poverty – new types of slum tourism

As I mentioned in my previous post, many slum tours tell a story of poverty and indeed poverty is nearly always associated with slum tourism. Two new forms of tourism may cause people to question what exactly constitutes slum tourism. Firstly there is the latest addition to tourism in Soweto. This is one of the most often visited townships in South Africa. Although the majority of international tourists still go on a township tour, they now can also go there to do bungee jumping and tower swinging. The activities are based around the Orlando Power Station towers and are promoted as one of the most exciting ways to see the township.

These activities are very different from the average township tour and it would certainly be interesting to see what kind of tourists do these tours and how their expectations and experiences compares to the more usual forms of township tourism.


It’s not only in Cape Town however that new and different forms of slum tourism are being developed. Accoring to this newspaper article an Australian businessman has plans to build 10 luxury villas in the high parts of Vidigal favela in Rio de Janeiro. According to him the attraction would not so much be poverty, but more the excellent views on the bay and beaches. This favela also attracts tourists for its “funky parties“. This is very different from watching the poor that slum tourism is so often associated with.

While there certainly are many potential ethical problems with these types of slum tourism as well, it does show how slum tourism is evolving and diversifying beyond looking at poverty. However, probably due to their novelty these new types of tourism and their impacts are hardly recognised and not yet investigated much by those working in the field of slum tourism.


The danger of a single story

In an earlier post I mentioned a television programme that placed celebrities in Kibera in Kenya. On the internet the programme has been criticised for portraying such a negative picture on the slums and some even use it as a way to criticise slum tourism in general.  One of my colleagues recently pointed towards one of the main problems of the programme, namely that it portrays Kibera using a single story of poverty. She then pointed me to this excellent presentation of Chimamanda Adichie regarding the dangers of such a single narrative.

The matters raised in the presentation are in my opinion very much related to the ethical debates surrounding slum tourism. The presentation and emphasising of a single story of poverty in slums has been used to criticise tours where tourists visit slums or impoverished areas. This criticism is often justified, in particular with tours where there is little or no contact between tourists and local people. On the other hand slum tourism can also serve to counter negative preconceptions of impoverished urban areas. It can help in showing the great amount of cultural and economic activities as well as diversity of life in these places. As such it can assist in giving people the opportunity to tell “their story” rather than what is shown in the media or have their stories told by others who have only been in these areas themselves a limited number of times.

Unfortunately, too many slum tours do not allow for respectful interaction with local people. Strict time schedules, itineraries and the language barrier make it difficult for tourists to have (meaningful) conversations with people other than the tour guide. Equally, tourists are sometimes more interested in getting “the picture” than listening or talking with others. This limits the experience both for the tourists as their hosts and means such slum tours tell a story of their own rather than that of the people they visit.

Gecekondu tourism in Turkey

In an earlier post I mentioned how we are trying to get some sort of overview on where slum tourism takes place. Doing this, we found certain forms of slum tourism that are temporary in nature rather than permanent.

Oda project

A good example of this can be found in the paper Gecekondu Chic by Derya Özkan, based on her PhD-thesis. She only discusses slum tourism briefly when she criticises the way in which it canturn poverty into a spectacle that can be aesteticised and consumed. However, particularly interesting  is her discussion of the Istanbul Bennial in 2003. Here informal housing (Gecekondu in Turkish) was used for an exhibited art project called “Ada”. A simulation gecekondu was built together with gecokondu builders from real life in the open in the backyard of the exhibition venue “Antrepo”.

Oda project

While the intention of the project was to highlight the production process of the gecekondu, it became a spectacle and was later criticised for aesthecisising the gecekondu and turning it into a cultural commmodity that can be consumed much in the same way as slum tourism in other places.

Although not intended as such, it would certainly seem that the Ada project created the first type of gecekondu tourism. I am not aware of more recent gecekondu tourism projects and/or gecekondu tours, but this example does show that temporal forms of slum tourism at least may be more common than we think.

Aid workers (and researchers) as slum tourists?

The most visible form of slum tourism is likely to be tours to impoverished areas by foreign holidaymakers. They stand out and often fit the stereotypical picture people would have of slum tourists. However, what about aid workers or researchers? These may not always be seen as typical tourists as they are not on holiday for pleasure only. However, from personal experience I can say that doing research in slums can be an exciting and pleasurable experience. Interestingly, while people working in slum tourism said they viewed me as different from the average tourist, this did not stop some from calling me a tourist. Colleagues with whom I talked about these issues mentioned they had similar experiences. I would thus say that the vast majority of slum tourism researchers are indeed slum tourists as well.

To a certain extent, a similar perspective is taken by Kent Annan with regards to aid workers. He notes they too may be viewed as “poverty tourists”. However, he appears to view the label “poverty tourist” as negative. In his post he discusses his own ethical difficulties with doing aid work in poverty stricken areas and how he tries to steer clear of doing “poverty tourism”. He does this by aiming to treat people with dignity and asking himself the hard questions, trying to have the visits make a difference at how he lives at home and letting them be part of a long-term commitment to finding effective ways to help.

What I find interesting about his discussion is that it displays similarities between aid workers and holidaymakers that visit the slums. The arguments that are given to prevent aid work from becoming seen as “poverty tourism” are remarkably similar to the potential benefits of poverty and slum tourism. Of course not all holidaymakers will let their visits have such profound impacts on their lives, but for some this may be the case.

While certainly not an academic study, to me such anecdotal evidence further strengthens my idea that the vast majority of aid workers and researchers are indeed slum tourists as well. This may be contentious and one can disagree on this matter. However, after reading about the experiences of Kent Annan, it would seem that visits to impoverished areas certainly can impact and change lives of tourists and aid workers in similar ways.

A future face of slum tourism?

Yesterday evening was the viewing of the first episode of “Famous and Rich in The Slums“, a BBC reality television programme for British charity Comic Relief in which 4 celebrities go and live in the slums of Kibera for one week. Rather than merely visiting the celebrities are really “slumming it”. They get an initial £1.60 and have to survive for the next week by working together with local people for local wages, whilst staying overnight in one of the shanties. It is an interesting idea and the show Rich and Famous in the Slumsseems to get fairly positive reviews.

Watching the programme made me wonder whether such total immersion could become a new form of slum tourism for tourists that want to go beyond the normal tours or overnight stays. Notwithstanding ethical as well as health and safety issues, it could provide tourists with a desired more “authentic” experience and break down some of the barriers between local people and tourists.

On the other hand, one has to wonder whether tourists would actually want such an immersed experience. The television show tries to bring across the harshness of life in Kiberia and this may certainly be more than what tourists would like to enjoy during their holidays. In the townships of South Africa overnight stays that allow for more social interaction with local people than the mainstream township tours, receive relatively few visitors.  I would expect the numbers for a total immersion experience to be even far less.

It would appear that the majority of people that visit slums prefer the lack of time and interaction. This makes it easier to distance themselves from the reality around them; observing the other and talking about local life with a tour guide rather than engaging with local people more directly? Nevertheless with slum tourism slowly developing around the world, who can say that such total immersion tours would never arrive?

The show can be watched back on iPlayer until 17 March and the second episode will be aired Thursday 10 March 9 pm on BBC1.

Update: Having watched both episodes now, the series does leave some sort of a bad aftertaste. Particularly the second episode takes a very negative stance upon life in Kibera and does little to show the entrepreneurial and positive aspects of life in this area. This is a shame as it makes the show come across somewhat voyeuristic in my perspective.