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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Slummin’ it on spring break

    The signs that spring break is just around the corner are hard to ignore – hordes of Cancun-bound revelers are packing the gym to tone their beach bodies and students everywhere are scrambling to finish up schoolwork to enjoy the upcoming nine carefree days of bliss.

    Whether you head to Cabo to test the limits of human tequila consumption or can afford to bask in the sunny rays of Rio de Janeiro, tourists to the world’s less-than-developed countries are increasingly relinquishing an afternoon at the beach to participate in an emerging trend – slum tourism.

    In addition to the perfunctory stops at noted monuments and leisure spots, Western travelers have begun to embrace the option of touring the ramshackle shantytowns of the world’s largest cities. What started as a way for tourists in Brazil to witness firsthand the decrepit poverty of Rio’s favelas has now spread all over the world. From New Delhi, Mexico City to Johannesburg, tourists can pay a nominal fee to spend a couple hours trudging through the dirt and sewage of slums to see poverty in its rawest form.

    Slum tourism (also referred to as reality, safe-danger or controlled-edge tourism or simply poorism) prompts some obvious criticisms. Is this merely a perverse profit-motivated exploitation of both slum dwellers and tourists or a reasonable alternative to encourage Westerners to address poverty?

    At its worst, slum visits are pity tours where rich vacationers make a brief detour from their resort-hopping itinerary to ogle slum denizens, take a few pictures and then return home and boast to friends their encounters with real poverty.

    It’s often a

    It’s often a ludicrous, if not sadly comical, spectacle: travelers armed with expensive cameras and hand sanitizer skirting mountains of rotting garbage and dishing out lollipops to children playing in fetid pools of water.

    ludicrous, if not sadly comical, spectacle: travelers armed with expensive cameras and hand sanitizer skirting mountains of rotting garbage and dishing out lollipops to children playing in fetid pools of water.

    The high demand for tours of Nairobi’s Kibera slum, sparked by the release of the movie The Constant Gardener was met with criticism from Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation: “”What is this fascination with Kibera among people who do not know what real poverty means?””

    Other critics charged slum tourism with marketing the misery and squalor of slum residents to the rich – not only are the tours morally irresponsible but they stir resentment towards foreign visitors and highlight rather than bridge the divide between the haves and the have nots.

    Yet, such visits don’t just take the form of pity tours. Slum tourism providers often donate a portion of the profits to slum-dwellers through local organizations. The income benefits the community and blunts charges of the self-serving motivation
    of tourists.

    Charitable donations may be more of a feel-good way to justify such voyeurism rather than genuine compassion, but the tours provide salaries to local guides and the opportunity for slum dwellers to sell crafts and souvenirs.

    To transform the demand for slum tourism into something sustainable, Trip Sweeney and Scott Zimmerman, founders of Step Up Travel, have suggested microfinance tours as an alternative to mere exhibitions of the misery and deprivation of abject poverty – too often a characteristic of the current crop of slum tours. The microfinance tours would showcase local projects working to empower individuals and lift residents out of poverty. Although the tours would be catered towards tourists, the emphasis would be on education rather than ogling poor people.

    Slum tours may not yet be a standard pit stop for most travelers, much less a popular destination for college spring breakers, yet the current growth of the market suggests it may be in the future. For all of the criticisms railed against the crop of slum tourists, they do hold the promise of a lot of good.

    Christina Jelly is a senior majoring in biochemistry and philosophy. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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