The moral dilemma of slum tourism

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Dharavi slum in Mumbai, Maharashtra. Not my image, since I was neither comfortable, nor permitted, to photograph the area during my tour.

Every weekday, on my way to Mumbai’s Sion Hospital, I pass a landscape of brown corrugated rooftops and blue plastic sheeting. This is one of India’s infamous slums. In fact, it is the nation’s largest one – Dharavi. 

Dharavi is also the third largest slum in the world, consisting of a million inhabitants. It is familiar to many from the film Slumdog Millionaire. And while slum tourism isn’t a brand new phenomenon, its resurgence after the 2008 blockbuster has made Dharavi the most frequented tourist destination in India, topping the Taj Mahal. 

Organized tours of Dharavi began a decade ago with the blessings of community representatives. Local guides lead these tours, with up to 80% of the profits going to local charities, often dedicated to education or healthcare in the area. When I paid a visit, it was the most kaleidoscopically dynamic place I had ever seen. Like Mumbai traffic, everything seemed unstructured but somehow in-sync. The alleyways were bustling with workshops, tailors, recycling plants, schools, barbers, temples, and street food. The slum was packed with makeshift homes of aluminium and tarp. It felt like a city within a city. 

Despite offering an eye-opening experience for visitors and yielding economic success, the ethics of slum tourism remain complex.  And justifiably so – as a tourist in Dharavi, you ironically pay hundreds of rupees to see how people with nothing live. Often dubbed as “poverty porn”, slum tourism is criticized as being voyeuristic and commercially exploitative.

On the other hand, such tourism might be the only way these neglected areas receive the attention they need – at least for the time being. One might perceive slum tourism as a means of economic and social support, boosting civic pride, awareness, and visibility. Sometimes, very wealthy tourists will decide they want to contribute more. Nonetheless, whether or not slum tourism directly addresses the real needs of the community is an unresolved debate. There is no evidence for this in Dharavi. 

Slum tourism is the sort of experience that rattles your moral compass. My own tour has left me grappling with questions about how one’s best intentions can actually affect other people’s (extremely vulnerable) lives. However, one thing is certain: slum tourism should not be for gawking at the residents like we are walking through a zoo, or intruding poverty-stricken homes. In the case of Dharavi, the primary purpose of the tours offered is to underline the community aspect of the area and its diversity. The Dharavi crime rate is below 1%, and not just because incidents go unreported. Everyone in the community looks out for each other, and there is work for everyone in the slum. 

Moreover, my slum tour aimed to expose visitors to the collaborative efforts of the industries there, in the hopes of also creating some positive associations with slum life. I learned from my experience that Dharavi is much more than its assumed stereotypes and its depiction in Slumdog Millionaire. The mass recycling operations were extremely impressive – a lot of which was done by hand. Plastics were melted, broken ventilation systems were being reconditioned, paint buckets were cleaned and reshaped with heat, and cardboards were re-flattened. Handbags, purses, belts, and jackets were also being produced from leather. 

However, this is not to say that Dharavi is representative of all the slums in the globe. Plus, we must not forget the poverty, substandard living conditions, safety issues, child labor, and diseases that are prevalent in slums, in Mumbai and beyond. Although these tours are aimed to demystify stereotypes,  highlight the positives, and diminish the “poverty tourism” label by limiting the time spent in the more impoverished regions, we shouldn’t be coming out of a tour legitimizing slum life as acceptable. Regardless of whether or not the slums are ‘not as bad as expected’, there should be no question that they are unfit places to inhabit. 

Slum tours will always be controversial. Should we decide to pursue one, the focus must be on rebuilding the respect that has been tarnished for these slum residents by media depictions. Part of this involves minimizing the adverse  impacts a slum tour might have on the community.

At the surface-level, this might mean traveling in small groups so as to not disrupt the neighborhood. It could also mean interacting with the local people, or trying as much as possible to meaningfully understand their realities, rather than just ‘watching’ them in pity.  Above all, it is crucial to ensure that the tour is an ethical one by researching the tour operator prior to embarking on the experience. At the very least, it should be through an organization with proven reinvestment into that slum’s community. 

Lastly, regardless of our stance on slum tourism, we must not forget that slum tours only aim to dispel notions of slums being a place of hopeless, abject misery.  And this is not enough. When it comes to poverty, the most important goal we must always keep in mind is the complete eradication of disparity and adversity – not just focus on what has occurred despite it.