From Slumdogs to Millionaires: How Poverty Tourism is Changing What It Means to Be Poor


Photograph by Edward Bermúdez

by Thomas Heise

Of the half million international tourists visiting Brazil for World Cup in 2014, several thousand will take the new gondolas, purchased from the German company Doppelmayr, to Sugarloaf Mountain, and on the ride up and down will have a sweeping view of Rio de Janeiro’s notorious favelas.

Laid out before the eye, the shantytowns – 950 in Rio alone – make an elaborate mosaic of red and yellow tiles spreading over the hills and valleys of the metropolis of 6.5 million. They are the urban “underbelly” of poverty and violence paradoxically and precariously perched up on the hillside’s prime real estate, the glamorous city’s darker doppelganger that Doppelmayr makes visible from above, as one rides on the back of a mechanical Christ the Redeemer gracefully sailing on an airstream out to the ocean.

Yet a few thousand braver souls will venture beyond the gondolas, football stadiums, the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, and the streets of two of Brazil’s wealthiest neighborhoods, São Conrado and Gávea, and book an organized excursion on foot up the steep hillsides of Rocinha, Rio’s most famous favela. Already over a half dozen travel agencies compete for the annual 40,000 tourists who head to the slums in search of a unique, unvarnished look at the putatively real Brazil, a number bound to increase with World Cup and, in another two years, the Summer Olympics. The three-hour tours lead daytrippers through the narrow, switchbacked streets and alleys impassable by car, but humming with motorcycles and mopeds, to see the informal houses stacked on top of each other, irregularly patched together with repurposed corrugated tin, cement, bricks and wood and netted together with jerry-rigged wires illegally siphoning electricity off the grid for the estimated 250,000 inhabitants.

Often referred to as a “city within a city” – the hermetic and insular Rocinha – and the rest of the favelas – are an integral part of Rio and a central character in the story of Brazil as an “emerging” nation, one of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) that will build the next decade’s markets for labor, capital, commodities and natural resources. The unanswered question is: “what are they emerging into?” Depending on one’s perspective, Rio’s favelas and those spread across the world that house the exploding population of the global poor are either a sign of worsening inequality and greater resource scarcity; or, a testament of inextinguishable human survival and ingenuity that bodes well for the future. Capitalist dystopia or a world of unleashed human creativity? The newfound interest in poverty tourism has the potential to tell us something about how we understand global inequality and how we are redefining what it means. Favela tours sell colorful stories and memories to participants, but their lasting impact might just be the way they are surprisingly changing our ideas about the deepest, most intractable poverty imaginable by rewriting it as a source of global innovation.

Worldwide, poverty tourism is a twenty-first-century growth industry, one whose material underpinning is the unprecedented concentration of the urban poor in mega-slums as the global urban population recently surpassed the global rural population for the first time in history. According to Mike Davis in Planet of Slums (2007), 68% of Peru’s urban population now lives in shantytowns, 80% of Nigeria’s, 85% of Bangladesh’s, 99.4% of Ethiopia’s. Now nearly every major developing city has at least one private tour company that escorts travelers by bus, SUV or on foot to witness firsthand the living and working conditions in its most impoverished zones. Through Reality Tours & Travel, visitors to Mumbai have the opportunity to see “one of India’s newest tourist attractions,” Dharavi – 432 acres of concrete tenements and metal shacks that house nearly a million people in an area half the size of New York’s Central Park. The tours lead sightseers through the red light district and an open-air laundry on the way to a recycling station.

The Dutch-Kenyan company Kibera Tours welcomes travelers to visit an orphanage and a bead factory on an excursion into “the friendliest slum in the world” (and the largest in East Africa), but advises participants not to bring “unnecessary valuables” and not to “hand out money, sweets, pens, balloons” to the locals because “this can create chaos and quickly may establish the assumption that tourists equal gifts.” Globally, the largest draw are the townships of South Africa, which entice upwards of 300,000 tourists a year, though the industry received a spate of bad press in 2006 when, on separate occasions, a group of Germans were robbed at gunpoint while visiting a school in Langa and Dutch visitors were assaulted outside a restaurant. Other opportunities for such tourism or urban safari adventures are found in Mexico City’s Tepito market, infamous for drugs and teenage prostitution, Bangkok’s hidden world of Klong Toey, Jakarta’s tent cities, and New York’s South Bronx which, with a poverty rate of thirty-eight percent, is home to the poorest Congressional District in America. Curtis Sliwa, the gruff founder of New York’s paramilitary, anticrime organization the Guardian Angels, leads an “Underbelly Tour” that in his words escorts “you back when drug dealers, muggers, and gangs ruled the streets” of the Bronx and promises visitors the chance to “learn about . . . active chop shops, drug houses in the shadows of police precincts, money laundering fronts, and murals dedicated to drug dealers.”

While the current scale and global dispersion of slums is unprecedented, they are of course hardly a recent development. Neither is the First World’s voyeuristic fascination with them. In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth- centuries, nighttime travel expeditions into London’s East End and New York City’s downtown wards were popular with middle-class residents and tourists who were curious about the changing face of their own city and country in the wake of mass migrations from the countryside and from overseas. As the historian M. H. Dunlop explains in Gilded City: Scandal and Sensation in Turn-of-the-Century New York (2000), “a typical slumming tour began anywhere between nine and midnight at a police station, where slummers acquired an authoritative and protective police escort.” Descents into the urban underbrush came with admonitions of modesty and caution – “leave at home your silk hat, diamond studs and kid gloves, and your watch,” suggested the author of a Rand McNally guidebook to New York’s Lower East Side in 1891 – and were then often followed by a stop at the rogues gallery and an inspection of seized contraband. Guided through the congested and ethnically bewildering world of the ‘other half’ – or what we might more accurately call the world of low-wage labor – nighttime tourists discovered tenements, opium dens, houses of assignation, flophouses, cellar beer dives and gambling parlors. This shocking eyewitness evidence was made sense of for tourists by the operator’s narrative, his accounts of murder, gang wars, miscegenation, and stories of how the city was becoming more Jewish, more Catholic, more “heathen,” more inscrutable, and more dangerous, troubling challenges to the Christian pieties upon which it supposedly had been built.

It would be easy to dismiss late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century slumming as a crude, exploitative exercise by the well-heeled in search of an authentic urban experience and a reaffirmation of their moral certitude by way of a few hours of roughing it among the motley lower classes. The charge, after all, would not be inaccurate. But to do so simplifies this complex cultural practice from the past and prevents one from seeing deeper continuities between it and contemporary poverty tourism. If nothing else, the sheer range of participants in the older slumming tour – weekend thrillseekers, social scientists, magazine and newspaper writers, housing reformers (most famously Jacob Riis), and novelists – Charles Dickens, Henry James, Jack London and Stephen Crane – points to a diversity of motivations. In a period in which “9 percent of the nation’s families owned 71 percent of the nation’s wealth,” as the Census Bureau calculated in 1892, such tours were a means of understanding what highly polarized inequality looked and felt like. With all of their cultural baggage in tow, they helped Gilded-Era Americans travel through a metropolis that in the wake of rapid industrialization and mass immigration had begun to feel for many disorderly, thrilling and alien. They instructed one how to walk through the spaces of the city’s crowded, poorer regions, as one mapped – and indeed reasserted ownership of – what had come to seem like a foreign locale. The writer Ernest Ingersoll advised slummers in his travel guide A Week in New York (1891), “Don’t allow yourself to be enticed into any back yards, or dark doorways, nor up or down any stairways, by man or woman.” “That was a woman filling her pail by the hydrant you just bumped against,” Jacob Riis informed armchair travellers in How the Other Half Lives (1890), following it with another direct address to readers that suggested the city’s maddening congestion and near inscrutability: “Come over here. Step carefully over this baby – it is a baby, spite of its rags and dirt.”

A century later, when according to the U.N. Development Program, the “net worth of the 358 richest people . . . was equal to the combined income of the poorest 45 per cent of the world’s population – 2.3 billion people,” poverty tourism has reemerged as a means of witnessing firsthand unparalleled levels of uneven development and inequality on a global scale. Today’s poverty tours, like those in the past, substitute social avoidance with social awareness, creating points of contact – though brief, scripted and highly unequal. And like their predecessors, contemporary poverty tours have also drawn the interest of sightseers on holiday, aid workers, development researchers, journalists and academics of tourism, some of who have formed an online communities, such as at to promote their findings, organize conferences and address issues of exploitation about which there is little consensus.

Looking at the poor while you are on vacation and doing something to alleviate poverty are two different things, though some forms of poverty tourism attempt to eliminate the difference. Christopher Way, the co-founder of Reality Tours & Travel in Mumbai, has pledged to “donate 80 percent of its slum-tour earnings to a charitable group that works in Dharavi.” And Favela Adventures in Rio stresses that it is “operated 100% by residents in the favela of Rocinha.” But the ethics of poverty tourism are murky at best and cloud any noble motives by either operators or participants. While typically undertaken with the spoken intention to learn about the human dignity, culture, and daily life of the poor, an unacknowledged draw of the tours are the lurid accounts of gangland violence, narco-trafficking and human sordidness that dominate the image of the favelas in news media and in films, such as Fernando Meirelles’s Cidade de Deus (2002) and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008). In a recent article in GeoJournal, the tourism scholar Manfred Rolfes has noted that interviewed participants express a mixture of motives and reactions that include not only their curiosity about poverty and a desire to see “real life” in the city, but also “a sense of guilt” over the implicit accusation that they are gazing upon the poor as if in “a zoo.” In Rio, the more ethically responsible operators mitigate the tours’ built-in tendency to turn poverty into scenery by informing visitors about the history of Rocinha as the former site of slave plantations of sugar and coffee, teaching them about new anti-poverty measures in the community, and showcasing recently opened schools and businesses as tourists sample feijoada brasileira, listen to samba and favela funk, and purchase small, handicraft souvenirs from residents before heading back to their hotels where, on the off chance, their paths may cross again: many in favela communities work as maids and bellhops.

Part of the explicit cultural work of poverty tourism is to disrupt stereotypical ideas of the poor as shiftless and pathological. “We’re trying to dispel the myth that people there sit around doing nothing, that they’re criminals,” says Way. What is replacing these damaging stereotypes is the image of the economically disadvantaged as unusually resourceful and industrious. Hardly lazy and looking for a handout, the urban poor are being redefined by the tours as self-disciplining, hardworking laborers – and even more unexpectedly – as budding self-reliant entrepreneurs. The scholar Rolfes notes that the tours “stress the relatively high standard of living, the advanced infrastructural equipment, and the modern range of services and the varied shopping opportunities,” and in doing so “strive to demonstrate the living conditions in favelas as absolutely normal and attractive.” John Lancaster, in a Smithsonian magazine feature on Reality Tours & Travel, remarked that in the face of unregulated, toxic living and working conditions, tour guides underscore economic opportunities. They proudly highlight how Dharavi generates an “estimated $665 million in annual revenue” from recycling and producing “plastics, pottery, bluejeans, [and] leather goods.” After his tour, Lancaster’s first impression of the slum as “a vision of urban hell” gives way to an understanding of it as “a node on the global economy” and leaves him wondering, “Were the people I saw in Dharavi the victims of globalization, or its beneficiaries?” Christopher Way’s partner, Krishna Poojari notes of the residents, “They’re happy to be here.” For its part, Nairobi’s slum is, according to the operators of Kibera Tours, “a city of hope,” a place where “people try to improve their lives” in ways that will make “you .  . . feel inspired.”

To suggest that the poor of Dharavi, Rocinha, Nairobi and other slums – who often live without basic sanitation, healthcare, and economic and physical security – are the “beneficiaries” of globalization may seem insensitive, even outrageous. Yet the sentiment is increasingly common as poverty tourism redefines what deprivation means for the poor and transforms what urban poverty means for the rest of the world. Felicity Clarke argued in a recent article in Fortune magazine that “the growth in favela tourism is an area of entrepreneurial opportunity for favela residents.” But writer and business strategist Dominic Basulto goes further by boldly asserting in “Favela Futurism, Very Chic” that “the future of global innovation is the Brazilian favela, the Mumbai slum and the Nairobi shanty-town.” “It is becoming increasingly likely,” he adds, that they “hold the key to the future of human development.” Rather than understood as the all-too-predictable outcome of mass urbanization mixed with a caste system or racism against indigenous peoples and lower-status ethnic clans, the favelas and slums are “bold new experiments taking place around the world.” Basulto’s optimistic outlook is bolstered by the World Future Society’s 2011 listing of “favela innovation” as one of its top-ten ideas that will lead to economic success and greater social harmony in the coming decades:

“Dwellers of ‘slums,’ favelas, and ghettos have learned to use and reuse resources and commodities more efficiently than their wealthier counterparts. The neighborhoods are high-density and walkable, mixing commercial and residential areas rather than segregating these functions. In many of these informal cities, participants play a role in communal commercial endeavors such as growing food or raising livestock. In the future, neighborhoods in the developed world will leverage technology in similar community-business plans.”

The World Future Society’s version of the favela sounds remarkably close to the well-ordered communities espoused by New Urbanism that began popping up across the US in the 1990s –tight-knit, pedestrian friendly city neighborhoods for the upper-middle class that mix high-density living with commerce.

Yet on closer inspection, what the recent reevaluation of the world’s mega-slums really suggests is not shared prosperity and better communities, but a future of greater resource scarcity and economic precariousness. Here the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” rings truer than ever. In the new rhetoric of poverty tourism, the poor are not seen as beggars but as adaptable and creative workers in an intensely competitive global economy. This development should give us pause as we ask whose interests these roles and the stories surrounding them ultimately serve as “emerging” nations that hold so many of the world’s poor have been singled out as the future sources of economic growth for First-World corporations. As nineteenth-century slumming defined poverty for those experiencing the maelstrom of industrialization, poverty tourism in the twenty-first century is defining it for us as the world’s economy shifts towards more insecure service-sector work. Nation after nation in the new period of austerity is dismantling its social safety net during this period of economic transformation. In this context, the language of DIY entrepreneurialism appears to conceal the jerry-rigged ways in which more and more people are forced to literally and metaphorically siphon off power to survive.

About the Author:

Thomas Heise is the author of Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2011), the novel Moth; or how I came to be with you again (Sarabande 2013), and the book of poetry Horror Vacui (Sarabande, 2006). He is an Associate Professor of English at McGill University and divides his time between Montreal and New York City.