Poverty Tourism

A feature of all slums is the pervasive stench, and no movie can capture that. Dharavi (the slum portrayed in Slumdog Millionaire) has no discernible garbage removal and one toilet for every 1,440 people. In the opening scene, the protagonist drops into a pool of human excrement. The audience flinches, but it does not smell the stench. If you want that degree of reality, you have to visit the slums.

Poverty tourism is a fast-growing and trendy segment of the tourism industry offering “up close and personal” tours of a favela in Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai, or a visit to the township of Soweto near Johannesburg to see the “matchbox” houses.13

Not surprisingly, like other forms of poortainment, poverty tourism has come under attack as voyeurism. The tour organizers, of course, insist that their motive is to raise awareness of poverty rather than provide entertainment. Yet, they, too, often end up romanticizing poverty. For example, the founder of Reality Tours & Travel, which offers tours of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, states that it is geared toward showcasing the human enterprise and industry within the area—those bootstraps again.

Salaam Balak Trust, an Indian charity for homeless children, organizes tours that feature the children living in and around Delhi’s main railway station. Tourists are shown how the children scavenge for rubbish, sleep between gaps on the platform roof, get high on Eraz-ex [a white correction fluid] and struggle to survive among the gang leaders and policemen. The Guardian reporter tells of one tourist feeling a little disappointed that she wasn’t able to see more children in action. “It’s not like we want to peer at them in the zoo, like animals, but the point of the tour is to experience their lives.”14 Contrary to her protest, this is poverty in a zoo.

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