Booming trade in "slum tourism" dispels some myths, creates others

Slumdog Millionaire Child star Azharuddin Ismail plays in his shanty on May 30, 2009 in Mumbai, India. Ismails family faced evicition from their dwelling in spring 2009. Photo by Getty.

Slumdog Millionaire Child star Azharuddin Ismail plays in his shanty on May 30, 2009 in Mumbai, India. Ismail's family faced evicition from their dwelling in spring 2009. Photo by Getty.

It can be an eye-opening experience that helps everyone involved move towards greater understanding….

It’s been happening in Rio’s famous favelas for some time. Now slum tourism—which turns a real-life ghetto into a “hot” tourist destination—has spread to Johannesburg, Manila, Cairo, and, in the wake of the blistering success of Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai. But it’s controversial wherever it goes.

Shelley Seale, author of The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, thinks slum tourism (also known as “poorism”) can be positive for both visitors and locals, but only if it’s done right. Seale toured the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, Asia’s largest slum and the setting for Slumdog, with Deepa Krishnan of Mumbai Magic, a socially responsible tour operator who donates a portion of her profits to local NGOs.

“Dharavi gave me a resounding rebuttal to the myth that poverty is the result of laziness,” Seale says. “I have never seen people work so hard. The place abounded with an industry and entrepreneurship such as I have not ever witnessed anywhere else. “It was an amazing experience, and I believe that things like this can do a lot to eradicate cultural bias and misunderstandings, and also the images of poverty that many of us have.”

…but it can also be exploitative and tarnishing to India’s global image

Indians tend to be very sensitive about their country’s identity. Many didn’t embrace the feel-goodism of Slumdog because they felt the film portrayed their country in a negative light, without offering explanations or solutions for the living conditions in the slum.

Likewise, Indian tourism professionals tend to be wary of slum tourism. They feel it can be exploitative, turning people’s lives into sideshow spectacle and obliterating both the slum dwellers’ humanity and the underlying issues, like India’s unrelenting rural to urban migration.

There are also justifiable concerns about who conducts the tours, and how. Ronjon Lahiri, director of India Tourism in Toronto, says that many of the so-called slum tourism operators are only looking to make a buck and don’t educate tourists on Dharavi and its residents.

He says that many people live there because Mumbai’s property prices are among the highest in the world. Even when residents make money, many don’t leave because Dharavi has become their home, their community.

For Lahiri, “Slum tourism is not to be encouraged. It is not good for India and not good for the people living there.”