The Rise of Slum Tourism

Have you ever heard of slum tourism? Vacationers on holiday arrange sight-seeing visits to poverty-blighted neighborhoods so they can take in some of the poorest communities in the world. (An estimated one in eight people worldwide live in so-called slums.) Although controversial – it has been labeled “poverty porn”- this new kind of tourism has become a popular way for tourists to engage with poverty on a close-up level.

But now there’s a twist: I honestly don’t know what to think about this trend, though I do know how I feel: I’m horrified. Rather than visiting an actual slum, you can simply check into a luxury resort designed to look like a slum. Welcome to the Emoya Luxury Hotel and Spa in South Africa (the driving directions begin: “Follow Nelson Mandela…”). Emoya’s advertising reads, “Now you can experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment of a private game reserve. This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless Internet access!”

What desire is satisfied by vacationing in a mock shanty-town?

I’m sure this hotel provides jobs for people in the area who otherwise wouldn’t have income. And I also realize: Who am I to judge if someone with a big travel budget seeks a different vacation experience than a typical five-star hotel? After all, about 15 years ago while celebrating a friend’s birthday, I stayed in tepee-style lodging in Colorado – was I dismissing the area’s Native Americans?

Yet something here seems really off.

Surely, people can’t honestly think because they’re staying at this Emoya resort, they’re experiencing poverty! So what desire is satisfied by vacationing in a mock shanty-town?

Is it possible in a globalized world, where we’re so much more connected to each other and where we vacation in places where unimaginable poverty is just a stone’s throw away, that cognitive dissonance is inevitable? Is it harmless if “poverty” themed B&B’s somehow mitigate the discomfort and anxiety around the vast gap between haves and have-nots? Is virtual empathy a safe replacement for “live” empathy?

I don’t want to sound like a scowl, but given that visiting the third world is becoming a “required” part of our first-world portfolio of experiences, it probably behooves us to ask what distinguishes a slums-as-entertainment experience from a transformative empathy-inducing experience that involves meeting and listening to people who live in poverty.

This past summer, my daughter spent seven weeks in Soweto, South Africa, working for the Keep a Child Alive Foundation and its partner Ikageng.

Led by an indomitable spirit dubbed Mum Carol, Ikageng provides food and clothing, school fees, mentoring, life skills and – most of all – love to orphans and vulnerable children, many of whom live in child-headed households where they take on the parent role and look after young siblings.

Like many who visit developing countries for the first time and witness extreme poverty, shocking vulnerability, and unfathomable disparities, my daughter experienced a roller-coaster of emotions. Sadness, helplessness, guilt, plus humility and gratitude for her privilege, empowerment at the real impact she could have on people’s lives, and a sense of wonder at the power of the human spirit. But more than anything, she came back a global citizen with new commitments to advocate, act, and galvanize others to help the poor. She was changed. Her personal growth cultivated an increased sense of responsibility for others.

Indeed, this is what differentiates entertainment-poverty from authentic third-world pilgrimmages: Metabolizing our experience into knowing that we’re not doing enough, and committing to do more (then doing it) to address the poverty we’ve seen. The test that travelers need to ask ourselves after the journey: Has our empathy baseline really risen?


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