Does slum tourism make us better people?

Issue date: 28 January 2010

An example of a slum Slum tourism is a growth industry with more and more wealthy travellers opting to visit the poorest parts of the world. What is it that is prompting slum tourism? Is it a new trend? What impact does slum tourism have on the people who opt for this kind of 'holiday'? Do they become better people as a result and does the experience prompt a call to action for social change?

A researcher from the University of the West of England's Bristol Business School is about to embark on a project that will address some of these questions and more.

Fabian Frenzel will travel to the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro in a quest to discover why people go, what prompts the tour operators to offer this kind of 'holiday' and the ethos behind the organisations. Do the tour operators give something back, do the travellers have an in depth experience or is this kind of travel little more than voyeurism?

Fabian Frenzel explains, “Slumming is not a new phenomenon, rich people have been attracted by slums since they occurred as a result of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century. And there is evidence that the slum experience has perpetuated social motivation to do good and moreover has prompted political demands for greater social justice.

“What interests me is the recent growth in organised tours to visit slums or shanty towns with a variety of different kinds of tour operator. I am going to look at one 'social' not for profit enterprise and one profit oriented enterprise with a view to determining the moral dilemmas implicit in this kind of tourism. Critics argue that the dignity of slum dwellers is violated by the tourist gaze. But others say that exposure to the 'experience' can motivate people from more privileged backgrounds to 'do some good' as a result.

“Many areas around the world that were once regarded as slums have become significantly gentrified and the conditions that people once lived in have led to the growing of unique cultural communities. Harlem in New York is a prime example, the area once associated with violent crime, drugs and sex trade has emancipated itself out of this as travellers have become attracted to the people, the music and the atmosphere of this multi dimensional neighbourhood. Much that now makes Harlem attractive grew out of the experience of the people who lived there when times were much harder. Arguably visitors to the neighbourhood have spread the word about the unique culture and this has helped to motivate the very gradual change. This has already been documented in historical books like “Slumming” by Seth Koven, looking particularly at Victorian slum-tourism in London or “Slumming in New York” by Robert M. Dowling.

“During my visit to Brazil I will interview the tour operators, go on the tours and talk to the travellers and to the people living in the slums. I want to find out how the people living in the Favelas feel about the tourism and the extent of their involvement in the tours. I want to find out what the tour operators put back and how the experience motivates the travellers to become involved in social change after their trip. Does slum tourism turn the travellers into better people? Is the experience truly life changing? Do people do the soul searching, change their lifestyle, work choices, charitable giving, involvement in voluntary work? Does the ethos of the tour operator motivate the traveller's choice of experience or is the motivation governed by cost or comfort factors?

“The project has been made possible by a new funding round at UWE called the Early Career Researcher Starter Grant which helps early researchers to conduct significant bodies of work that will inform teaching and act as a springboard for future projects. This work will feed into my teaching and allows a temporary space to take time to build a foundation for ongoing research interests.”

Fabian will travel to Brazil during the summer of 2010 and lead a Research Seminar at UWE's Bristol Business School during the autumn where he will present his findings.


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