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Double Standard? Slum Tours Bad in US; OK in Developing Countries

Cooking in a New Delhi slum

Slums, MumbaiSlum tourism is a growing industry in cities with mega-slums like Nairobi and Mumbai. Now it is popping up in the United States. First there was a gang tour in LA and now a trip through New York City’s tough and tumble neighborhoods.

Real Bronx Tours offers tourists to New York City the opportunity to see a part of the city notorious for crime, drugs and murder in the 80s, says the description on Foreigners get to see the big sites of the northern borough such as Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, Barto-Pell Mansion and a ‘real New York City “GHETTO.”‘

A reporter from the New York Post participated in the tour with mostly European and Australian tourists. Candice Giove described a stop in front of a church food pantry where the tour guide was clueless as to what it was.

“We see them go in with empty carts, and we see them come out with carts full,” said the guide, according to Giove.

According to other people who participated on the tour and shared their experiences on Trip Advsior, the experience is essentially a bus tour throughout the Bronx with a stop to check out Yankee Stadium. One tourist from Australia even lamented that they were not taken into the ghetto on the tour.

We eventually boarded the bus and were promised that we would see “a real NYC ghetto”, “artistic graffiti” and that “little Italy” had been removed from the program due to traffic issues. Unfortunately this tour did not deliver on the description.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz was not happy to learn about tour and the way it represents the borough he leads to tourists. Diaz and NYC Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito wrote an open letter to the tour company following the New York Post report.

“We strongly urge you to stop profiting off of a tour that misrepresents the Bronx as a haven for poverty and crime, while mocking everything from our landmarks to the less fortunate members of our community who are availing themselves of food assistance programs,” wrote Diaz and Mark-Viverito.

The pressure worked and the tour agency announced that the Real Bronx Tours would come to an end. Diaz expressed his approval of the decision citing that the Bronx has a lot to offer than poverty.

“We are more than happy to welcome tours to our community that celebrate the rich culture and history of our neighborhoods, but using the Bronx to sell a so-called ‘ghetto’ experience to tourists is completely unacceptable,” said his office in a statement on Tuesday.

Bronx residents are responding by gathering today to launch a counter-campaign called “Bronx Rising” that shows a positive image of the borough.

Kenyan student Kennedy Odede raised the issue of slum tourism in his home country in a 2010 OpEd for the New York Times. He describes seeing his first slum tour at the age of 16 from outside his 100 square food home. He  likened the experience of being photographed by a white woman on the tour as a tiger in a cage. He recognizes the desire by foreigners to learn about poverty first hand, but argues against the way that people, like himself, are exploited through the tours.

Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.

Unlike the New York Post article, Odede’s OpEd and other calls for ending the practice of slum tours have not deterred the industry. Kibera Tours is the 8th ranked activity for visitors to Nairobi according to Trip Advisor. It holds a 5 out of 5 rating with multiple comments praising the experience. One person from California describes the experience:

This tour takes you through tiny walkways and narrow streets that are nothing but slippery mud. There are dangers of corrugated tin sticking out houses.. I am sure that any accidental cut could expose one to tetnus and a multitude of other infections.

For Daniela Papi, it is about designing programs to be more effective so that the tours are not exploitative gawk-fests.

“In my opinion, it’s not implicitly bad to have the rich and poor mix. It can lead to very negative impacts on both sides, if it is not designed properly. Rather than discussing if this is right or wrong, let’s talk about how we can design these facilitated interactions better so that both sides can learn, share, and improve the greater global society,” she wrote in 2009.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]