Issues with slum tourism

After two months of representing a living dead due to having overtaken a way too big project as an individual for my Master’s research, I finally managed to hand it in and got to enjoy life in Cape Town again. As I wrote about some days ago my new life included traveling in the Cape Town region with my mum and drinking wine. Lots of wine.

Though I’m delighted the time as a living dead is over, I’ve also suddenly felt rather empty not having to get up every morning to write on the report. And since I’m very devoted to continue with more township/slum tourism research, I’ve thought to channelise some of the things I’ve learned about the field on my blog, as it seems it’s of growing interest among not only academics and journalists but travelers too.


I’ll start with sharing some subtracts from my academic research report about the issues with slum tourism.

The growing tourism to the developing world often come with discussions about how tourism can benefit the world’s poor. And many claim that whilst the discussions go on, tourism is actually instead benefiting from poverty, as the touristic valorisation of poverty­- stricken areas of metropolises is growing.

Such recognition is accompanied by heated debates, and journalists and academics have for long attempted to identify the purpose of slum tourism. In this post, I’ll first go through the issues of defining tourism to disadvantaged areas:

Unlike most other tourism forms, slum tourism is ethically and politically ambiguous. It is subject to widespread debates polarizing opinions, and there exists no official definition of it. Disparate terms like Poorism, Zooism, Voyeurism, Slumming or Poverty-, Dark-­, Justice-­, Political-­, Social-­, Reality-­, Development-­, and Culture & Heritage tourism are all used to describe this phenomenon (e.g. Ramchander 2004; Rolfes 2010; Ma 2010), which reflects the many efforts made to debate and comprehend its manner and purpose (Butler 2010; Outterson & Selinger 2009; Frenzel et al. 2012). Also, while the applied terms depend on the author’s discourse, they will undeniably also depend on which actor is being studied in the real world. This indicates that the many expressions probably can correlate during one slum tour, giving it different meaning and purpose according to how and who it impacts.


Looking at slum tourism as a dynamic product this way demonstrates its complexity. Consequently is it complex to reach an agreement on slum tourism’s purpose and outcomes. Let’s look at some debates based on this tourism form’s many controversies:

The major controversy attached to slum tourism is the notion that poverty and deprived people are slum’s main attraction (Freire-­Medeiros, 2009; Rolfes et al., 2009; Steinbrink, 2012). It relates to the fact that the distance between the ways of life of slum tourists – wealthy enough to be having a holiday in the first place – and the ways of life of slum dwellers is obviously colossal. This distance therefore provides a perverse power of attraction (Frenzel et al. 2012), and consequently much debate is sparkled by judgements and speculations about the tourists’ unethical motives. Their assumed desire to see people living in poverty fosters accusations of voyeurism, often blaming tourists for taking part in a form for human zoo (Whyte et al. 2011; Frenzel et al. 2009).

A common opinion is that albeit tourists’ caring personal intentions, their presence in a slum can be perceived as voyeuristic and intrusive to people’s private spheres (Briedenhann & Ramchander, 2006; Freire-­‐Medeiros, 2009; Whyte et al., 2011). Whereas some may argue that privacy intrusion is an issue in other forms of tourism too, what is evident in slums is that residents already lack privacy due to poor housing (Huchzermeyer 2011; O’Brian 2011). Is it then “ethically acceptable for financially privileged tourists to visit places for the purpose of experiencing where poor people live, work, and play” (Whyte et al. 2011:2)? Tightly connected to that question however, is another: Who is in charge of delivering that purpose responsibly?


It is argued that slum tourism in many ways turns the reality of the underprivileged into entertainment for tourists to experience for a moment and then freely escape permanently. This critique of displaying reality on slum tours is by some linked to reality television.

Tour operators, such as television producers, can basically write a script for tour guides on what to tell and show, playing on emotions such as compassion, fear and delight. A crucial question in slum tourism therefore, concerns how slums are represented and if these representations are fair (Butler 2010; Rolfes 2010; Frenzel et al. 2012). To counter the critiques, slum tour operators often argue that the purpose of their tours is to dispel negative stereotypes surrounding slums by educating tourists about slum life and residents (Rolfes et al. 2007; Teixeira 2011; Frenzel et al. 2012). However, Fennel 2009 (in Whyte et al. 2011) argues that when tours’ mission and purposes are laid, slum residents’ wishes are rarely considered. Instead they are turned into passive objects – a product in the service of an industry.

Indeed, it is commonly assumed that slum dwellers are relatively powerless compared to visiting tourists and tour operators, thus easy to exploit. Research has found that slum tour operators typically are for-­profit companies and donate little money to slums (Outterson & Selinger 2009; Ma, 2010; Maliepaard 2010; O’Brian 2011; Teixeira, 2011). Questioning slum tourism’s suitability then, it is important to ask who benefits from slum tourism. How are profits from tours distributed and do the tour operators pay slum dwellers for adding value to their tours (Whyte et al. 2012)? Do tour operators support or initiate social projects (Frenzel et al. 2012)?

In order to combat misbalances of power and benefits, many authors argue that residents should play a bigger role in the planning of tourism, not a role as tourist attractions in itself (Rolfes et al. 2009; Whyte et al. 2011). As in other tourism forms, is it essential that host communities participate and have some control over tourism in order for it to be both economically and socially empowering (Goodwin 2011).



Those are the main issues predominantly debated in the academic sphere (hence the references). Ill write about the pro’s in another post soon, as they are indeed as important, considering that this tourism form whether we like it or not, is expanding rapidly and globally as we speak.

If you have any questions about my research, findings and how I worked, please email me on

(All photos in the post are my own).


  1. Pingback: Key findings from my Master’s research | The Gipsy Giraffe
  2. Pingback: (Media) issues with slum tourism | The Gipsy Giraffe
  3. Pingback: Why township tourism? | The Gipsy Giraffe

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