Michael Cronin's job as a college admissions officer took him to India two or three times a year, so he had already seen the usual sites – temples, monuments, markets. Then one day he happened across a flyer advertising "slum tours.''
"It just resonated with me immediately," said Cronin, who was staying at a posh Taj Hotel in Mumbai where, he noted, a bottle of champagne cost the equivalent of two years' salary for many Indians. "But I didn't know what to expect.''
Soon, Cronin, 41, found himself skirting open sewers and ducking to avoid exposed electrical wires as he toured the sprawling Dharavi slum, home to more than a million. He joined a cricket game and saw the small-scale industry, from embroidery to tannery, that quietly thrives in the slum. "Nothing is considered garbage there," he said. "Everything is used again.''
Cronin was briefly shaken when a man, "obviously drunk," rifled through his pockets, but the 2 1/2-hour tour changed his image of India. "Everybody in the slum wants to work, and everybody wants to make themselves better," he said.
Slum tourism, or "poorism," as some call it, is catching on. From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the townships of Johannesburg to the garbage dumps of Mexico, tourists are forsaking, at least for a while, beaches and museums for crowded, dirty – and in many ways surprising – slums. When a British man named Chris Way founded Reality Tours and Travel in Mumbai two years ago, he could barely muster enough customers for one tour a day. Now, he's running two or three a day and recently expanded to rural areas.
Slum tourism isn't for everyone. Critics charge that ogling the poorest of the poor isn't tourism at all. It's voyeurism. The tours are exploitative, these critics say, and have no place on an ethical traveller's itinerary.
"Would you want people stopping outside of your front door every day, or maybe twice a day, snapping a few pictures of you and making some observations about your lifestyle?" asked David Fennell, a professor of tourism and environment at Brock University in St. Catharines. Slum tourism, he says, is just another example of tourism's finding a new niche to exploit. The real purpose, he believes, is to make Westerners feel better about their station in life. "It affirms in my mind how lucky I am – or how unlucky they are," he said.
Not so fast, proponents of slum tourism say. Ignoring poverty won't make it go away. "Tourism is one of the few ways that you or I are ever going to understand what poverty means," said Harold Goodwin, director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism in Leeds, England. "To just kind of turn a blind eye and pretend the poverty doesn't exist seems to me a very denial of our humanity.''
The crucial question, Goodwin and other experts say, is not whether slum tours should exist but how they are conducted. Do they limit the excursions to small groups, interacting respectfully with residents? Or do they travel in buses, snapping photos from the windows as if on safari?
Many tour organizers are sensitive to charges of exploitation. Some encourage – and in at least one case require – participants to play an active role in helping residents. A church group in Mazatlan, Mexico, runs tours of the local garbage dump, where scavengers earn a living picking through trash, some of it from nearby luxury resorts. The group doesn't charge anything but asks participants to help make sandwiches and fill bottles with filtered water.
The tours have proven so popular that during high season the church group has to turn people away. "We see ourselves as a bridge to connect the tourists to the real world," said Fred Collom, the minister who runs the tours.
On any given day in Rio, dozens of tourists hop in minivans, then motorcycles and venture into places even Brazil's police dare not tread. Organizers insist the tours are safe, though they routinely check security conditions. Luiz Fantozzi, founder of the Rio-based Be a Local Tours, says that about once a year he cancels a tour for security reasons.
The tours may be safe, but they can be tense. Rajika Bhasin, a lawyer from New York, recalls how, at one point during a favela tour, the guide told everyone to stop taking pictures. A young man approached the group, smiling and holding a cocked gun. Bhasin said she didn't exactly feel threatened, "just very aware of my surroundings, and aware of the fact that I was on this guy's turf.''
Still, she said, the experience, which included visiting galleries featuring the work of local artists, was positive. ``Honestly, I would say it was a life-changing experience," Bhasin said. Chuck Geyer, of Reston, Va., arrived for a tour in Mumbai armed with hand sanitizer and the expectation of human misery incarnate. He left with a changed mind. Instead of being solicited by beggars, Geyer found himself the recipient of gifts: fruit, and dye to smear on his hands and face, as people celebrated the Hindu festival of Holi. "I was shocked at how friendly and gracious these people were," Geyer said.
Proponents of slum tourism say that that's the point: to change the reputation of the slums one tourist at a time. Tour organizers say they provide employment for local guides and a chance to sell souvenirs. Way has vowed to put 80 per cent of his profits back into the Dharavi slum.
The catch, though, is that Way's company has yet to earn a profit on the tours, for which he charges 300 rupees (around $7.50). After receiving flak from the Indian press, he used his own money to open a community centre in the slum. It offers English classes, and Way himself mentors a chess club. Many of those running favela tours in Brazil also channel a portion of their profits into the slums. Fantozzi contributes to a school and daycare centre.
But slum tourism isn't just about charity, its proponents say; it also fosters an entrepreneurial spirit. "At first, the tourists were besieged by beggars, but not anymore," said Kevin Outterson, a law professor from Boston who has taken several favela tours. Fantozzi has taught people, Outterson said, "that you're not going to get anything from my people by begging, but if you make something, people are going to buy it.''
Even critics of slum tourism concede that it allows a few dollars to trickle into the shantytowns, but say that's no substitute for development programs.
Fennell wonders whether the relatively minuscule tourist revenue can make a difference. "If you're so concerned about helping these people, then write a cheque," he said.