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Slum tourism, anyone?

Tourists are always eager to see authentic destinations and find out how the locals live. It is not only trendy shopping districts that attract tourists, but many are keen to visit the living quarters of the less privileged, i.e., slums of some of the largest cities in the world.


Eva Holmberg

Yrkeshögskolan Novia

Annika Konttinen

lehtori, matkailuliiketoiminta
Senior Lecturer, tourism business
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 18.12.2023

There are interesting developments and ­­­trends in tourism that we are constantly following. Sometimes we get a chance to experience them as well. Our SUCSESS project meeting in South Africa gave us an opportunity to visit a slum tourism destination. We wanted to dig deeper into this phenomenon, and this is what we found out.

Slum tourism is not a new phenomenon

The roots of slum tourism are in the 19th century, with London, New York and San Francisco among the famous slum destinations in the past centuries (Bednarz 2018; Frenzel et al 2015). These days, the most famous slum destinations are in the BRICS countries of Brazil, India and South Africa.

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro started the trend with guided tours for tourists to see how the slum dwellers live. The movie Slumdog Millionaire made Mumbai’s Dharavi famous. The founding fathers of post-Apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, made Soweto in Johannesburg the slum to visit and to see the urban poor.

There are many other well-known slum destinations, e.g., Tondo in Manila, Kibera in Nairobi and Khayelitsha in Cape Town. A couple of the most fascinating slum sites are the now already demolished Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong and the City of the Dead necropolis in Cairo, where residents live in a cemetery.

What is common to all these areas is that they are considered dangerous, dirty, derelict, overcrowded and poor, infested with crime and diseases. Some slums have nevertheless become trendy and fashionable to visit and live in.

The two main reasons for slum tours are the tourists’ quest for authenticity and altruism

Tourists generally want to see authentic, exotic and unique aspects of the destinations they visit. Slums are such places in many of the biggest cities around the world. By visiting slums, tourists can experience the diversity of the cities. Slums are certainly different to the comforts of their hotels and homes.

Tourists visit slums on organised tours with a local guide, as poor areas are often no-go zones for outsiders. A local guide is a must for safety as tourists are easy to identify simply by their appearance. Slum tours are conducted on foot or on bikes, often guided by residents. On the tour, visitors can get a glimpse of local homes, kindergartens, shops and other sites in the slums.

From the local society’s point of view, slum tours are a way to make people aware of inequality and poverty issues (Frenzel et al 2015; Shang et al 2022). For example, tours to South African townships made visitors aware of the human rights violations of apartheid (Booyens & Rogerson 2019).

Further, visitors can give back and help the local communities. As doing good has become a trend in tourism, altruism is another important reason for visiting the less privileged areas. Tourists want to understand the lives and realities of locals and are concerned for their wellbeing. Visiting the slums can, in good and bad, be a unique experience, very far from anything tourists experience at home.

Slum tourism is a very complex issue

The most obvious dilemma with slum tourism is that the visitors are always better off and can be accused of voyeurism (Frenzel et al 2015). Indeed, tourists want to see and experience (and take photos of!) the real life of slum residents, often intruding on the privacy of the locals. Critics say that slum tours are superficial “poverty porn” experiences packaged for the benefit of wealthy and privileged tourists.

Slum tourism is called reality tourism, poverty tourism or ghetto tourism where the main idea is to visit impoverished and marginalised areas. In the future, there will be even more slums to visit as the slums are growing due to increasing population and migration from the countryside to the cities. For new urban dwellers, the first place of residence is often a slum.

It is possible to read slum tour reviews in TripAdvisor. The reviews reveal more than the tour descriptions, which often omit to mention that even though visitors are advised not to bring valuables with them on the tour, they should have cash to donate to locals and buy souvenirs.

The local guide provides safety but also makes it possible to support the local community. Instead of tourists giving money to local families directly, the guide will collect the money from the tourists and give it or coupons purchased by the tourists at a local supermarket to the slum dwellers. Tips for the guide are also expected, even though the tour itself can be rather expensive.

Certainly, slum tourism is a very complex issue, like many tourism topics often are. A slum tour is always an eye-opening experience, but also involves unpleasant and uncomfortable moments. This was our experiencd during our visit to Soweto in autumn 2023.


Bednarz, C. 2018. Inside the Controversial World of Slum Tourism. National Geographic.

Booyens, I. & Rogerson, C. 2019. Re-creating slum tourism: Perspectives from South Africa. Urbani izziv. Supplement. 52-63.

Frenzel, F., Koens, K., Steinbrink, M. & Rogerson, C. 2015. Slum Tourism: State of the Art. Tourism Review International.

Shang, Y., Li, F. & Ma, J. 2022. Tourist gaze upon a slum tourism destination: A case study of Dharavi, India. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Volume 52, 2022, Pages 478-486.

Editing: Marianne Wegmüller

Picture: Konttinen & Holmberg