Poverty Tourism: What’s Your Take?

In 2008 I visited the insanely gorgeous country of South Africa. We did the wine tours, the safaris, visited Robben Island and made our way up Table Mountain. One of the most unique and eye opening experiences that I had, though, was a tour of one of the townships. I’d seen them on the drive into the city centre. Shanty towns that spread along the highway and a huge distance back.


Khayelitsha from the N2. Apologies for the fuzziness, but I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures during the tour.

Our particular tour was of Khayelitsha, the biggest fastest growing township in Cape Town, if not South Africa. Over 400,000 people lived in these makeshift homes of corrugated metal, shipping containers, pieces of wood, tarps and cardboard boxes woven together. It was by far the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt while traveling, but it has stuck with me all this time. As a result, I remind myself never to take my life and the luxuries I experience as a middle-class Canadian for granted. I also noticed, however, that these townships appeared (obviously I don’t know what happens outside of the tour) to have a strong community. Mobile markets popped up, women ran small businesses such as hair dressers out of shipping containers, and in some of the smaller home-like buildings (what I would consider Western/standard walls, but a dirt floor) operated as local watering holes with a fuzzy television connection, the t.v. tuned to a football game.

Not once on this tour did I take a photo. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It felt intrusive and rude. But, in retrospect,  could the tour itself not be considered intrusive and rude? Possibly. When I went back to do some research on this for this posting, the answers I get are mixed. This particular research showed that residents of townships in South Africa were receptive to township tours, provided certain courtesies were followed (small groups, walking vs. driving, encouraging the purchase from a local business, not taking photographs without permission, etc.).

Does that make it okay for us foreigners to intrude?


I question myself, because here my husband and I are planning a trip to Southeast Asia. Options abound to visit villages, do home stays, or visit small local markets. Is this considered slum tourism? I can see the argument – mainly because it was my first reaction – that we simply want to see how locals live, experience their culture on a deeper level and gain insight into a different community. Yet, I can also see the perspective that we’re basically paying for poverty entertainment. Perhaps I’m not really getting a true local experience, but rather what’s been formatted for visitors to “experience” Thailand, South Africa, Vietnam, you name it. Insert ‘x’ country here.

If we didn’t go on tours, if people rode their bikes to a township, a slum or an impoverished village, would that make it better? A self-guided experience, an attempt at a real interaction? But on the flip side, for those of us less confident with language barriers, unfamiliarity with cultural differences – does a tour make us feel safer? I think so. It puts a parameter around an experience, to a degree.

As is the norm with my blogs, I clearly don’t have the answer, but I think it’s an interesting debate.

What do you think? Have you taken part in ‘poverty or slum tourism’? What are your thoughts? Unethical or eye opening experience?

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4 Responses to Poverty Tourism: What’s Your Take?

  1. Jessica @ Independent Travel Cats March 18, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

    Hello! First, thanks for citing my travel blog post about the research study on slum tourism. I have written about this topic a couple of times on my travel blog and plan to add a few more posts in the future based on research findings. I can tell you from a pretty good overview of the research the effects of slum tourism are mixed (although not well studied), but a lot of stakeholders and researchers believe that slum tourism if done correctly can lead to positive changes (increased employment for locals, increased tourism economy, more infrastructure such as better roads, more donations from Westerners). However, we know that in many cases the tours are more about making money and pleasing tourists rather than helping the local people, businesses, and country. Simply visiting an impoverished area isn’t generally considered slum tourism, but the organization of tourism activities around this issue is what people are generally talking about (e.g., organized tours in Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Mumbai, etc.). I think it is great that you got to thinking more about this important topic after the tour.

    • vscot848 March 18, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

      Thanks for visiting my blog, Jessica. Yes, I see both sides of the coin, so it’s such a tricky one. I agree with you on the “if done correctly”, but as a tourist it can be so hard to tell if this is the case until you’re actually experiencing it. You’ve done some great research!

  2. marshinator12 March 19, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    Good points. I think that it’s important to remember that wherever you go as a tourist (“local” experience or not) you are a spectator on other people’s lives. There will be people offended by that and people excited to help you no matter where you travel. But I don’t think it’s ever too wrong to want to step out of your life for a bit and look at someone else’s as a means of broadening yourself

  3. Nicole March 19, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    I think slum tourism can be exploitive, but I don’t think it is necessarily more problematic than visiting a place and completely ignoring the poverty of a country. I was really uncomfortable in Jamaica in the little resort bubble. I think a lot of slum tourism is also racially charged — upperclass white people using impoverished people of colour as an ‘exciting’ or ‘scary’ or ‘authentic’ aspect of their vacation. You wouldn’t go to a city or country that is seen as primarily white (i.e. Paris or London which are of course hugely diverse cities, but are still largely seen as European) and go to the slums or the worst parts of the city. I dunno, I don’t know a ton about it! It seems like there is probably a pretty wide gap between the theory and the practice of ‘slum tourism’.

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