Nilima Achwal

A New Brand of Poverty Tourism

A phenomenon dubbed “poverty tourism,” or “poorism,” has been spreading across the developing world, from the urban slums in Mumbai (think Slumdog Millionaire, a movie some have dubbed “poverty porn”) to isolate villages in Rwanda. Most of us have a knee-jerk reaction of repulsion when we hear of ignorant camera-snapping tourists traipsing through a low-income neighborhood, gawking at the filth, and pitying the poor, poor children. Or even worse, of coming out of the tour with a heightened sense of entitlement, having reached the nirvana of “doing something” for others and seeing what life is outside of their neighborhood Starbucks. The poor should never be entertainment or tools for ignorant self-fulfillment. But what about respectful poverty tours that help the local communities? Or ones that open minds, provoke thought, and maybe even action? Poverty tourism is a complicated subject with different faces, so it’s important to look at the real effects of it on the ground.

According to an article in the Huffington Post, the tours in the villages of Mayange, one hour south of Kigali, Rwanda, are led by a Rwandan social enterprise tourist agency New Dawn Associates and Rwanda Nziza, a locally-run tourism cooperative with 200 members that receive training in tourism and share the profits.

The tours allow tourists to speak with farmers, and watch weavers create art and dancers perform local pieces. There are some benefits from the tours: each tour costs $60 per head, and 70% of the revenue is given back to the community members that participated directly in the tour, and the participants rotate with each tour. A large weaving cooperative, managed by a group of women under a profit-sharing model, has benefitted financially from the increased sales, granting the women of the village more independence and wealth. Some women who provide meals have been so successful among the tourists that the tourism cooperative has invested $10,000 in a restaurant for them.

The tours in Dharavi, a large slum on the outskirts of Mumbai, limit tour groups to 4 or 5, prohibit cameras, hand-outs, and questioning locals, and focus on the slum’s huge, thriving industries. Dharavi is home to up to 10,000 small (unregulated) factories, on which the estimated one million people make their living. Businesses manufacture everything from pottery to leather goods and generate an estimated $665 million a year in revenue. It’s difficult to emerge from this tour without having all your notions about the poor shattered and re-formed.

A danger to these types of tours, especially in the case of isolate villages, is that the communities become dependent on the tourism, leaving them in worse shape if it does not continue. Also, it is easy for these communities to fall into yet another benefactor-beneficiary relationship, so it is imperative to de-emphasize donations and hand-outs, instead focusing on employing the poor. Another, less quantifiable danger is that of positioning the locals as exotic creatures, to be observed and prodded, and then left behind.

From the tourists’ perspective, there is no question why these tours have succeeded. When someone from the developed world travels to, say, Mumbai, it’s hard not to notice the poor, even if she is shuttling from mall to hotel in an air-conditioned taxi. Travelers often get the feeling that they are missing a vital piece of the country, but when they ask about the “other half,” locals tell them, Stay away from the slums, they are very dangerous. Slums take on a mystical, removed air; you can see the poor, but only from a distance. Local residents are often not proud of the poverty in their own countries and want to show off the glamorous side instead. These reactions only reinforce insidious perceptions of the poor: they are dirty, dangerous, to be kept away and out of sight. It’s no wonder, then, that poverty tours have become successful; travelers want to see what all the hype is about. I grappled with my own beliefs about the Western images of poverty while on my Kiva fellowship; you can read about it here.

If these tours create a real connection between poor communities and wealthy travelers, they can be an invaluable tool. If travelers can understand for once that the poor can be hard-working, friendly, intelligent people that just happen to have adapted to very different surroundings, the possibilities are endless. Travelers will return to their boardrooms and government offices with a broader vision of the world, which will translate into more inclusive policies and initiatives. Especially now, as philanthropy becomes almost trendy in corporate America, executives find a need to understand the bottom of the pyramid. It’s hard to tell, though, whether these tours create an experience that ties humanity closer together or just provides a fragmented, disjointed view into the lives of the poor. That depends on each tour and the openness of mind of the individual traveler.

It’s easy to go on debating whether these tours are right or wrong, but it may be more practical to delineate aspects that make the tours more sensitive to and empowering for the local communities:

1. Local Residents Employed

Ideally, locals run at least a part of venture through a conventional business or a management cooperative like in Rwanda. Otherwise, the locals must be involved to some degree, like as tour guides, speakers, host families (if tourists spend the night), caterers, and/or transportation providers. The village/community leaders should be consulted about the details of the tours (timing/location/policies) before starting.

2. Majority of Profits Accrue to the Community

As a result of (1.), the majority of the venture’s profits should accrue to the community itself. The goal should be neither to make a buck on the poor, nor to donate a portion of the profits to the community, which would reinforce their dependence on others for subsistence.

3. Good Behavior Enforced

No cameras, no hand-outs, no interrogating the local residents. Groups should be kept small and un-intrusive, and tourists must be encouraged to wear local-style, humble clothing so as not to attract attention.

4. Local Economy Supported

Tourists can support local ventures, like restaurants, traditional handicraft stalls, and stores, and help them to grow. However, tourism should be only one revenue stream; as the slum or village develops, tourism will decline and local industries will need to sustain themselves.

5. Agency-Created Mindset

The tourist agency must perpetuate the open-mindedness with which tourists are expected to approach the village or the slum. For example, have a conversation with travelers before entering the slum to explain appropriate behavior and the locals’ point of view.

6. New Infrastructure For Residents

Tourism can draw attention to the infrastructure needs of a community, including roads, electricity, water supply, sewage systems, and communications. If new infrastructure is to be put in place, it must first and primarily service the residents, not the tourists.

Are cautious, well-executed tours to poor areas ideologically harmful for the tourists and the locals? Perhaps. We can argue that they will only reinforce beliefs of the privilege and superiority of Westerners, for both parties. But what doesn’t? In fact, the only thing that doesn’t continually reinforce the unequal dynamic resulting from colonialism is genuine person-to-person interaction, when one can’t help but feel on the same level. Whether these tours can achieve that remains to be seen; we must hope that the majority of tourists will leave the villages and slums feeling inspired, and that business successes will empower locals, leaving them both materially and ideologically better-off.