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Education or Voyeurism?

Potsdam geographers study what slum tourism changes in visitors and visited
Foto: Fabian Frenzel

Foto: Fabian Frenzel

Museums and markets, animals and temples, picturesque landscapes and friendly people – these are the things that most people want to experience when travelling abroad. But what about poverty-stricken areas or even waste deposits where people in rags rummage for anything useful? An increasing number of tourists travelling to the metropolises of developing and threshold countries also visit such places that are anything but idyllic. Dr. Fabian Frenzel and Prof. Manfred Rolfes from the Department of Geography examine in what way slum tourism can alleviate poverty. 

Excursions to Table Mountain or a safari in Kruger National Park are among the classical highlights of a trip to South Africa. Of the approximately 2 million tourists from all over the world who visit South Africa every year, an estimated number of 800,000 also book a guided tour through the “townships”, the shantytowns at the outskirts of Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town.

“Slum tourism” came up at the beginning of the 1990s, after apartheid, when politically interested visitors wanted to see how Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters had lived in the township of Soweto. This niche product has since turned into an independent business branch of the global travel industry that has promptly come under criticism. Slum tourism, critics say, merely satisfies the voyeuristic desires the affluent who want to shudder at the misery of others before returning to their five-star hotel. 

Are these allegations justified or can slum tourism actually contribute a bit to closing the gap between the poor and rich? These questioned are examined by political scientist Fabian Frenzel in the project “Qualitative Indicators of Poverty Alleviation“, for which Frenzel received a Marie Curie research grant of the European Union and set himself up at the Department of Geography at the University of Potsdam with Prof. Manfred Rolfes, one of very few specialists worldwide in this research field.  

It has already become clear that even normal tourism in developing countries hardly alleviates the need of the poorest, as once hoped. Additional revenues end up primarily in the pockets of those who already have investment resources. Are not the “few bucks” that tourists spend in South African townships, Latin American favelas or Indian slums just a drop in the bucket in the face of such a mammoth task?

“We define poverty reduction not only by the amount of money spent by tourists and by who benefits financially,” Frenzel makes clear at the start, because poverty is more than just the shortage of material goods. It also includes social discrimination and limited areas of experience. It complicates the access to land ownership, education and political participation. “We want to know what slum tourism changes in the minds of both the people living there and the visitors,” Frenzel says.

In contrast to cash flow, you cannot count or measure the changes in thinking and behavior and in the relationships between the visitors and the visited. By using case studies and interviews Frenzel is developing indicators that can describe such effects of slum tourism.

A look into the past reveals that this is not a new phenomenon. In around 1840, members of the London high society started making pilgrimages to the East End, often accompanied by journalists looking for an enlightening story. Among them were also social reformers who wanted to help the poor escape misery. These visitors from the upper class of the Victorian age were surely also driven by their curiosity to see the losers of industrialization. “Already during these early periods of slum tourism there were visitors with altruistic intentions and those who wanted to get a glimpse of the ‘darker’ side of society,” Frenzel says. 

The recent trend started similarly. When apartheid was still being enforced in South Africa, excursions to the ghettos of people of color were an official tourist attraction. At the same time, activists from all over the world had local civil rights activists and non-governmental organizations show them the restrictions resulting from allocating residential districts based on skin color. After racial segregation, tourism started to boom. More and more visitors not only wanted to enjoy the beauty of landscape but also to learn more about the country’s history. Meanwhile nearly 50 providers in Cape Town alone offer foreign visitors insight into life in the townships for a few hours. 

Shrewd activists in Rio de Janeiro used the international boost of the 1992 Earth Summit to guide interested people through Rocinha, the largest favela of the Brazilian city. Today about 20 independent travel guides and eight commercial providers bring to light the reality of life in the slums for about 50,000 visitors every year. Meanwhile almost all megacities in the southern hemisphere offer sightseeing in the slums. This part of the tourism sector got new impetus by films like “City of God”, set in one of Rio’s satellite cities, and “Slumdog Millionaire” whose protagonist manages to get out of Dharavi, Mumbai’s biggest slum. For a while now, it has not been only inhabitants who work as “guides”. In Bangkok, a large commercial provider got into this business from the very beginning a few years ago. 

Thus “Undercover Tours” or “Reality Tours” eventually end up on “normal” itineraries of long-distance travelers. But what is going on in their minds? “Our previous interviews showed that many have to correct their picture about poverty,” Frenzel says. For example, most visitors of Dharavi were surprised that the poor people do not just sit doing nothing but have a more or less regular daily routine. Children go to school and most adults pursue some kind of trade. They wash clothes, repair bicycles or make basic commodities from recycled material. On some tours the tourists also learn that not all slums are the same. Some districts have already experienced an upswing. “Very few visitors are aware that slums are often the first place for rural refugees who pour into the cities to find a job and some income,” Frenzel says. 

You can also observe change in the slum inhabitants, initially among those who organize tours, no matter whether they take the initiative themselves or take up the ideas of experienced tourists or non-governmental organizations. The guides have to learn other languages. They learn to understand what tourists are looking for and what prices they are willing to pay. “They gain a certain level of mobility,” the researcher summarizes. Some keep in touch with former visitors via social media. If political or development organizations are involved, they are sometimes invited to other countries. 

Many details support the idea that large parts of the population consider the slum tours as an acknowledgement of their existence. Frenzel says that Google Maps recently deleted the favelas of Rio de Janeiro at the behest of the Brazilian government, who regarded them as an eyesore. The people living there, however, had developed a new kind of self-confidence due to the interest of foreigners and struggled to get back on the map. Meanwhile the city of Rio has taken care of escalating drug-related crime and organizes slum tours itself. 

It is still too early to give final answers to some questions raised in the research project. However, Frenzel’s mentor Manfred Rolfes can already say now, “I would recommend such a tour to everybody.” 

The Project

The two-year research project “Qualitative indicators of tourism’s role in poverty alleviation” began in September 2012. The European Union awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship in its Seventh Framework Program. All researchers working in this field will meet at a conference in Potsdam in May 2014.


The Scientist

Dr. Fabian Frenzel studied social and political sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin and in Great Britain. In 2010 he received his PhD from the Leeds Metropolitan University. Until 2012 he taught tourism in England. Then he joined the Department of Geography at the University of Potsdam, where he leads the research project about the poverty-alleviating effects of slum tourism with Prof. Dr. Manfred Rolfes, who has held the professorship of Regional Studies and Applied Human Geography since 2004.


Universität Potsdam
Institut für Geografie
Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 24–25,
14476 Potsdam OT Golm


Author: Sabine Sütterlin, Web Content Editing: Julia Schwaibold, Translator: Voigt