How RESPONSIBLE slum tourism looks like

As a follow up to my previous post called Key findings from my master’s research, I’ve chosen to share what I defined as Responsible Slum Tourism during my project investigating Township Tourism in Cape Town, South Africa and presented in my final report. The background for my study was based on the presumption that:
for slum tours to be practiced more responsibly, it is essential to consider ways in which tourism to deprived areas can be a tool for socio-economical development and poverty alleviation.
And that presumption is linked to the widely accepted fact between academic researchers that:
although small companies find it challenging to implement strategies beneficial to all in the community, there is great potential for tourism to benefit more residents than those already involved (Rolfes 2010; Goodwin 2012).
The 14 criteria I’ll present hereby are an extension of – and a rationale for – a criteria checklist I created when searching for tour operators to participate in my research. The criteria are targeted at tour operators (whatever the slum area) and crucially suggest how following them will benefit all stakeholders: The community, the tourist and the tour company.

NB! Please note that with regard to tourism to urban disadvantaged areas, the term township goes for the same as favela in Brazil, villa in Argentina, barrio pobre in some Latin-American countries, gecekondu in Turkey, or simply slums in India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt ++. Shantytowns often refer to the areas within a slum or on the outskirts of a city where all buildings are of very low-standard, e.g. made of corrugated metal, plywood, sheets of plastic and cardboard boxes. Most slums include shantytowns, and indeed they often represent the most popular attractions for visiting tourists.

Photo cred:

Shantytowns in Lima. Photo cred:


Shantytowns in Jakarta. cred:


NB II! It’s important to emphasise that tours to different slum-like areas around the world aren’t all the same. However, through research and the gathering of valuable material on how the concept is developing both in places where it has been going on for decades and places where the practice is emerging, there are many interesting similar features, such as:

  • Tour companies promoting how their tour fight stereotypes about poverty and poor people
  • Tour companies promoting how their tour is educational for the visitor
  • Tour companies promoting how their tours benefit local people
  • Tours including a visit to a household, a community center, a school, kindergarden or orphanage
  • Tours including cultural or traditional elements such as dance, singing, a home kitchen, traditional doctors
  • Visitors being concerned about their safety and the fear of intruding upon people’s private lives
  • Visitors speaking very warmly about the eye-opening experience after their tour

Whether you are a want-to-see-slum individual, a (slum) tour company or a tourism professional, I think the below criteria can be helpful in further thoughts – and actions – on what Responsible Slum Tourism looks like.

NB III! Please note that the criteria presented below are developed on the basis of previous findings by a variety of researchers in addition to my own experiences and research in South Africa.

1. Walking over driving tours

It’s difficult to create meaningful connections and mutual respect between guests and hosts when tourists sit in a car/ bus and see the neighbourhoods through glass tinted windows. Fortunately there is an increase in walking tours in Langa (the township in Cape Town that I was investigating for my report), as well as other townships, and this shift might partly reflect residents’ concern about voyeurism and limited interaction (Rolfes et al. 2009; Butler 2010). Research shows however that though companies state that they avoid drive through tours, this still occurs.

2. Small rather than large tour groups

Equally, this contributes to avoiding residents feeling intruded on (Butler 2010). It does however seem that this criteria already is met by most responsible tour operators as it is often stated on their website.

3. Behaviour guidance to tourists

Most tourists have never been on a township tour and hardly know what to expect when they go. Yet they know a township is a deprived area, and research shows that many tourists have ethical concerns prior to booking (Rolfes et al. 2007). In this context the tour operator and the guide plays an important role in informing on ‘good behaviour’ to avoid negative impacts on communities. What makes sense to the tour operator will not always make sense to visitors and vice versa. Besides, it enhances an operator’s ethical credentials (Goodwin 2011b).

4. Photography policy

Although as this research found, many local people like having their picture taken (Freire-Madeiros 2009), living with it daily can become bothersome (Ramchander 2004; McCombes 2011). Clearly, it should never happen without the residents’ consent, but research show that people on tour, and especially in groups, tend to objectify ‘everything’ for their holiday album (ibid). This does not mean they do not know how to behave, but they forget their very own behaviour as ‘observers on tour’.

5. Fair salary

The tourism sector is highly informal and research shows that many businesses take advantage of cheap labour staff due to high unemployment rates (Koens 2012). Fair salaries to guides generate staff goodwill, something that in turn results in satisfied clients. Moreover, it can reduce exploitation of the host communities as it has been observed in both this research and Koens (2012) that guides interfere with donations to residents in order to end the tour getting a bigger tip themselves.

6. Tipping policy

Whether fair salaries are assured or not, the tour operator could still communicate on their webpages that tipping the guides (for good service) is welcome, rationalising this with guides’ background. Other companies have had success with this practice (e.g. Reality Tours in Mumbai), which results in guides behaving more professionally whilst increasing their salaries.

7. Compensation to visited households

If households are visited during a tour, they are in fact treated as a tourist attraction as they indeed add value to the tour. It is then essential that this service is paid for (Whyte et al. 2012). This research and Butler (2010) show that visitors often wonder what agreement tour operators have with households, and if they should tip them too when visiting. It also makes business sense to communicate this clearly (Goodwin 2012)

8. Promoting local purchase

If slum tourism is communicated as beneficial for host communities all potentials for increased benefits should be exploited; this is particularly important in the context of wealthy tourists visiting poor areas, to learn from, and understand township lives. Research shows that today visitors are driven to ‘make a difference’ (Rolfes et al. 2009; Butler 2010; Teixeira 2011).

9. Donations from tourists

This takes the community enhancement aspect further. Many tourists might not find anything to purchase, and depending on the nature of the tour, it may not seem natural to all to ‘spend money just to spend’. Moreover, research show that educated people understand that giving to a community project might benefit more people overall, and therefore prefer this to purchasing objects (McCombes & Goodwin 2009). Although not all visitors ask about donation possibilities, this research and other sources show it is their most favoured option for which tour operators receive grateful feedback (Rolfes et al. 2009; Maliepaard 2010; Tripadvisor reviews).

10. Own involvement/donations

Tourists expect their experience of township to be developmental at some level (Rolfes et al. 2007; Butler 2010; Ma 2011). Tour operators find their own way to engage, and this may change during time, however it is believed to create goodwill among host communities and admiration and trust among clients (Goodwin & McCombes 2009).

11. Evidence of responsible claims

Research shows that some tour operators do much more directly and indirectly for communities than what they actually communicate (Maliepaard 2010). It is important to move away from statements like “X % of our sales go to a community project; we make a difference in the community; we create employment; we are respectful” to detail what and how tour operators do it, and whom the above benefits. This allows for greater trustworthiness and makes complete business sense as a USP (Koens 2012). Crucially, communicating what is being done, or how the company’s operations affect the community, attract devoted clients that in particular look for (even if it is subconsciously) good communication of such. Research shows these are increasing in numbers (Frey & George 2007; Goodwin 2012).

12. Linkages with local enterprises

The more linkages companies creates, the more widely they benefit the community. Research shows there are issues of repetition on township tours and a need for more content on tours (Rolfes et al. 2007; Frenzel et al. 2012). The potential to include restaurants and craft shops, as well as homestays in tour packages is underestimated (ibid).

13. Seeking residents feedback

This enhances mutual respect between beneficiaries. Emphasis on improving and establishing community participation empowers residents, generating goodwill and cooperation that all stakeholders benefit from (Boyeens 2010; Goodwin 2011b). Feedback is most useful when originating from the very own host communities that operators benefit from.

14. Assuring staff have the same aims

While companies may claim to follow the above criteria and therefore assume their tours benefit the community, this and precedent research show this depends largely on who is guiding the tour (Rolfes et al. 2007; Boyeens 2010; Butler 2010; Maliepaard 2010).


If you want some more background info regarding my research in Cape Town, have a look here.  Also, check this interesting post out about a gathering of research findings from other researchers on the topic “How do slum inhabitants feel about tourism”.

For any questions regarding my research, or information on my upcoming work on this, please email me on

One comment

  1. Pingback: Truths about the fascinating long-neck women | The Gipsy Giraffe

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