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India Slum Tours Spark “Reality Tourism” Debate

Mumbai’s latest attraction seems an unlikely match for India’s most cosmopolitan city: guided walks through Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum and home to over 600,000 people. For an afternoon, visitors give up the glamour of Bollywood for the grime of the hutments, where great industry and extreme poverty lie side by side.

The tour has triggered interest and controversy among Indian and international press, inviting renewed attention toward the question of commercial poverty tourism (also called “poorism” or “reality tourism”). Defenders say excursions to impoverished neighborhoods raise awareness and generate income for the community. Critics consider such “urban safaris” intrusive, voyeuristic, and degrading.

The phenomenon started in 1992 in the druglord-controlled favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and has since spread to other cities in South America, the townships of South Africa, and Kibera, Nairobi’s largest and most infamous slum. With urbanization on the rise and the growth of alternative and “safe edge” travel niches, more cities worldwide will no doubt latch on to the trend.

In Mumbai, the founders of the Dharavi tour company, Reality Tours and Travels, defend the propriety of their operation. Co-owner Krishna Pujari states that they “want to show tourists the reality of Dharavi and change any negative images they might have about this slum. We respect the privacy of the residents of Dharavi and ensure that the tour does not disturb them in any way.”

Indian activist Simpreet Singh, however, suggests that such aspirations ignore the reality of the situation. “Exhibiting poverty and destitution can never be an act of compassion,” she said in a DNA India online forum. “If one really aims to improve the situation, one must go beyond superficial engagement with the issue. Merely sensitizing visitors…is not enough.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed by Salim Mohamed, project director for the Carolina for Kibera charity. Kibera, home to 800,000 people, has long been a symbol for Africa’s desperation and hopelessness. But the intensifying attention of visiting dignitaries, tour groups and, recently, thousands of activists at the World Social Forum, has only raised expectations among residents of improvements in living conditions-improvements that haven’t come.

“Kibera does not need pity tours,” Mohamed stated simply. “It needs action.”

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