Slum Tours : The Human Zoo?

Over the past decade ‘slum tourism’ has sky-rocketed to popularity, seen as a new way to branch outside the more conventional tourist activities. This form of tourism can actually be dated back to Victorian times, when the curiosity of the upper-classes drove them to London’s East End to witness the living conditions of the poor. A century or so later and slum tours were being offered in India, Africa and Brazil. Now the idea has spread all over the world.

Rocinha camaras

UN-Habitat define slums as urban areas that lack one or more of the following: durable housing; sufficient living space; easy access to safe water; access to adequate sanitation; and security of tenure that prevents forced evictions.

Many become uncomfortable with the idea of a group of wealthy tourists visiting a slum to look at the poor; these experiences have been likened to a museum visit – the detached visitor sauntering around whilst critically looking at what’s on offer. But surely these trips have so much more potential, if orchestrated properly? First of all, visitors will experience the whole infrastructure of the slum and if they’re lucky, might even interact with its inhabitants. This experience begs the privileged tourist to open their eyes to deprivation, appreciate their comfortable lifestyle and may even lead a few people to offer themselves up for charitable work, or at least a donation.

Moving Mountains Kenya Chair, Gilbert Njeru, offers his first-hand account of the effects of slum tourism in Shauli Moyo and Grogon slums, both in Embu, Kenya:

Slum tourism in Kenya can have both positive and negative impacts on communities.There is a great feeling amongst the slum dwellers that most people will visit the slums and take photos, through which the locals get no benefit or assistance, whilst the tour operator benefits financially from their exploitation. It is hard to tell which organisations are genuine out there and which are there to make profits and benefit from the people who live in the slums. Most of the people are turning hostile towards visiting tourists; they are sick of having their photos taken as people use them for fund-raising and personal benefit. The slums are turning into a museum.

Moving Mountains is helping the communities in the slum areas by improving the infrastructure and learning facilities in schools whilst trying to lift the education standards With a couple of programmes running like the social welfare programme, we offer on-going support to children through funding school fees and uniforms. We also have a feeding programme that helps to maintain children in school, taking the big boys to polytechnics to learn skills that will help them get employed. Moving Mountains also offers grants to some of the families to start up small businesses that help them support their family’s needs.

Kenya slum 2

My experience with on a tour in Rio de Janeiro’s largest slum, Rocinha:                   

To be honest, I found the most unethical part of the experience took place before the tour even began – each of us boarded a moped taxi. This was both thrilling and slightly petrifying as we wound our way uphill through the busy streets of the slum to reach the starting point of the tour. Drivers there are daredevils by Western standards and we narrowly missed passers-by and the odd chicken; it was an interesting start.

Rocinha signOther than being fed facts about Rocinha, the tour was a chance to purchase locally-crafted items, including artwork and baked goods – I purchased a painting by 13 year-old Edu who lives in the slum; I couldn’t say no. We didn’t make fly-through visits; we got a chance to chat to the inhabitants in broken English or our tour guide would ask questions about slum life and translate the story back to us. We were assured that the slum community were welcoming of tourists, mainly due to the donations and aid work offered by the tour company that partners with the slum’s orphanage and school. The company also helps inhabitants into employment. The main objective of the organisation is to “dispel a myth that Rocinha is simply a place of drug dealers and extreme poverty” and it does this by creating a relationship with the local community.

Interesting cables…

Many competing organisations failed to create such a symbiotic relationship and their connection with the slum community wasn’t as positive, which can mean that the tourist’s safety is somewhat questionable.

Adventure Alternative’s view:

One of the success stories is the Africamp Street Kid Rehabilitation Programme. The background to this whole programme begins with an idea to take street children off the streets and try to give them a life, an identity and some hope in their future. They are given clothes, a school uniform, a place in which to meet safely, regular food and an opportunity for education. Mostly we give them company and friendship and a sort of surrogate family which is a big security for them.

This was the vision of Gavin Bate since 1991. Now it is a highly successful, well managed and fulfilling programme which incorporates many aspects of corporate strategy promoting pro-poor tourism, and charity being supported by commerce. This is now seen as a main tenet to aid in Africa by the Commission for Africa report in 2005.

A taste of what Adventure Alternative clients can experience:

Clients have a full afternoon to visit and experience life in the slums where Moving Mountains works on a daily basis; Muthurwa slum is where everything started, the original street kids that helped shape MM and AA all came from this area and we have spent a number of years re-building the local Primary School and developing our ‘Black Cats’ Street Children Sports Program. After this, clients head over to Sub Saharan Africa’s largest slum, home to an estimated one million people; Kibera. MM and AA has been involved with projects in Kibera since 1991. Ushirika Community Clinic, which was developed by MM is also the base for our HIV/Aids Community Outreach program with a team ofhealth workers and volunteers working daily in the slum to provide medical and nutritional assistance and counselling to families and individuals affected with HIV/Aids.

 It’s not a case of quick entry and exit – this is where Moving Mountains Trust – Adventure Alternative’s partner charity – conducts a lot of its work and we want our clients to take part in the development of these areas and to meet the wonderful people that reside here.

Are You Being Fooled by the Greenwash?

Even before ‘greenwashing’ had made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999, it had been sneakily adopted by the cynical and irresponsible in every industry, not least tourism. Many tour operators, travel agents, hotels and lodges are guilty of adopting the word ‘green’, ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’, but simply donating money to ‘green’ causes, choosing to recycle or any other lip-service does not a sustainable organisation make.

Similar to agriculture, transport and energy, tourism is regarded as a climate-sensitive industry with many tourism and leisure organisations dependent on the climate and the health of the local environment in order to operate. Can tourism and travel ever be truly ‘green’? Tourism often involves air travel and other carbon-intensive activities that would suggest not.

This blog is in response to Justin Francis’ (Chief Executive and Co-Founder of www.responsibletravel.com) outrage at the claims made in Travel Weekly Magazine. The magazine congratulates Las Vegas hotels for their green attributes:

Las vegas Lights

“Las Vegas Strip, that legendary bastion of glitz and neon, is actually a model community when it comes to sustainable environmental practices.” – Travel Weekly USA, October 10th.

The article then goes on to say: “Today, agents can sell most cruises as responsible, some even as eco friendly.  Perhaps no major line has been more active than Royal Caribbean in promoting its image as a green company.” –  Travel Weekly USA, September 26th.

The problem seems to be that the award schemes that these organisations sign up for reward incremental performances.  By showing relative annual improvements, these organisations are apparently worthy of a Gold Rating in sustainable performance. Many hotels in Vegas have the same environmental outputs (energy, waste and water) as a small town, whilst cruise ships have a notoriously bad history when it comes to staff welfare. Consumers will see these ratings and will be led to believe that these establishments are at the pinnacle of sustainable practice. This is dangerous for sustainable tourism, allowing the greenwashers to win. Of course incremental improvements should be celebrated, but in order to be meaningful, sustainability should really be measured in the absolute sense.

Adventure Alternative have put together a list of questions that you can use to help you to look beyond the greenwashing, the glitzy marketing and the price.This guide by no means covers everything; it is intended to be a pragmatic user guide rather than an overwhelming and head-melting mass of questions. We categorised the points so that you can choose to focus on the areas that are of most importance to you and your travel companions. You can likely answer many of the queries by snooping around on websites or perusing brochures, but don’t hesitate to call up and ask tricky and invasive questions.

Photo: Alamy

We are also planning to produce a further list of questions aimed specifically at trips involving volunteering or charity work. This is an area of tourism where recent history has uncovered a huge amount of cynical ‘box-ticking’ exercises by providers. Many incidences have left both participants and potential beneficiaries equally let down by the poor methods of project identification and administration.

By demonstrating that consumers are taking an interest in sustainability, the industry will be forced to comply to consumer demand and up the sustainability game. You have a lot of power! Your choices as a consumer can significantly impact upon the development of communities and the conservation of culture and natural resources.