Cambodia, Charity, Social problems, South East Asia, Travel

Poverty Tourism

I will be the first to admit, I used to be a guilty party to poverty tourism. Well, not going on tours of slums/economically disadvantaged areas, but taking photos of kids in Myanmar I gave bottles to so they would have something to play with. “Oh, look how they are so happy with the simple things in life.”

No. It wasn’t right then, it isn’t right now, and it never will be right.

When we go into the ‘slums’, or poor villages, we are going into peoples homes. We are taking photos of their day to day living, and intruding in their lives. How would you feel if you were at home, hanging out the washing or taking a bath, and someone came and took photos of you? Not good, I am sure.

Slum tourism dates back to the 1800’s, when wealthy New Yorkers would travel to the Lower East Side to see how the lower class lived. It has exploded in recent years, with many tour companies offering slum tours. Some even give back substantially to the community, but at what cost?

Kennedy Odede writes, “It’s not worth it. 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.”

He refers to his own personal experience, “I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.”

He elaborates further, seeing both sides of the story.

“To be fair, many foreigners come to the slums wanting to understand poverty, and they leave with what they believe is a better grasp of our desperately poor conditions. The expectation, among the visitors and the tour organizers, is that the experience may lead the tourists to action once they get home. But it’s just as likely that a tour will come to nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough. Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.”

I understand that there are many arguments in favour of slum tourism, saying that it raises social awareness for poverty, but it really isn’t worth the intrusive behaviour into the lives of community members. An interview with the Daily Nation sheds a light on how ‘slum dwellers’ feel.

“It happened in the blink of an eye,” Ms Lillian Wambua recalls her first experience with slum tourists. She wanted to bathe her two-month-old baby and had placed him in a water trough outside her door and gone back inside the house to pick a towel. As she was coming out, two foreigners suddenly appeared on a path that runs in front of her house. “One of them took out a camera and took shots of the baby as the other bent and smiled at the baby. “I wanted to protest but my eyes met a mean-looking member of the Siafu (a gang that controls a large area of Kibera) who was accompanying them and I kept my cool,” she says. The three then left as fast as they had appeared.

Recently, more awareness has been raised about poverty tourism in Cambodia. Every day, an increasing number of tourists have been visiting Anlong Pi, a rubbish dump about 30km from Siem Reap. There, they take photos of the men, women and children who spend day upon day sorting through filthy rubbish just to make a couple of dollars. Not only does this intrude on the lives of these people who are just trying to make a living, it also encourages the children to stay out of school so they can perhaps make a few dollars from the tourists who are turning their lives into a tourist attraction.
If you want to be aware of the issues facing people in developing countries, how about visiting social enterprises started by NGO’s? The people who work there come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they could chat to you about their lives without it being intrusive. Or, there are many reputable sources on the internet which could give you a better insight into poverty. And if you want to help people living in poverty, donate to NGO’s who support them, buy local and spread the word that these are real people with real feelings who should not be tourist attractions.