The pros and cons of slum tourism

The pros and cons of slum tourism

All in favor of the real-life set of "Slumdog Millionaire" becoming a tourist attraction, say yay
Dharavi tour
The world discovered Dharavi because of the movie "Slumdog Millionaire." The Oscar-winning film increased demand for companies organizing guided tours into Asia's biggest slum.

To Mumbai dwellers, especially expatriates, the concept of slum tourism, poverty tourism, poorism or simply slumming it needs no introduction.

Starting first in London in the late 1800s when groups of wealthy Victorians dared venture into poor neighborhoods like Whitechapel and Shoreditch, it moved across the pond, where New York City’s then-dodgy Lower East Side held the same draw. 

Today poverty tourism is practiced all over the world -- from Rio’s favelas to South Africa’s townships, from Nairobi’s Kibera to Mumbai’s Dharavi -- charging tourists a relatively small fee to see how the other half lives. It's literally the other half, in Mumbai’s case, as 55 percent of the population live in squatter settlements, about one million of them in Dharavi, Asia's largest slum.

Most travelers and expats rave about Reality Tours & Travel, some calling their guided walk through the 1.7-kilometer-square labyrinth life-changing, others the highlight of their entire Mumbai vacation.

Paul Phelan, an Australian expat staying in Bandra, just took out-of-town visitors on the 150-minute afternoon Dharavi tour.

“I’d recommend Reality Tours to anyone visiting the city,” he says, calling it both time and money well spent.

But is slum tourism really a way to help Dharavi’s residents, or just a cheap way for spoiled foreigners to tick “slum” off the India bucket list before hitting the beer bong at Leopold’s?

An op-ed published last year in the New York Times sums up the criticism well: “They get great photos, we lose a piece of our dignity,” writes the author, a former resident of Nairobi’s Kibera slum, who goes on to chide tourists for mistaking their mere presence in the area as helping residents in any way. 

Most critics haven’t been on our tour. It’s easy to group slum tours into the same bracket.— Chris Way

Indeed, many tourists, noting the satellite dishes, electrical wiring and general absence of begging, agree Dharavi’s really not that bad, for a slum at least (although we’re sure they wouldn’t want to live there).

One British girl I met recently at a Mumbai bar, recalling the Reality Tour she’d taken that morning, dismissed Dharavi as “a pretty posh slum” and basically dismissed its so-called poverty in a rush to get back to her beverage.

Which begs the question, as the NYT article suggests, does poverty tourism inspire any sort of action? Or, does it achieve just the opposite by letting us think we’ve done our good deed and can then disregard the rest of the city’s social problems?

Chris Way, co-founder of the Colaba-based tour company, is of the opinion that, “there will always be naysayers.”

Way started Reality Tours in 2005 with business partner Krishna Poojari to show visitors the positive side of slum life, namely Dharavi’s strong sense of community and cottage industry diversity. 

The pair also wanted to give back to Dharavi's residents who see little to nothing of the slum’s reported annual turnover of US$665 million. They provide support via a community center and Montessori kindergarten founded in 2007 through the company’s charity arm Reality Gives.

“Most critics haven’t been on our tour,” Way says. “It’s easy to group slum tours into the same bracket.”

To combat charges of voyeurism, Reality Tours doesn’t allow cameras or take groups of more than six people into Dharavi. It also pays all operating costs for the Reality Gives community center and school. The company also puts 80 percent of its profits (after taxes and salaries) back into the community through this charity arm. That's 40 percent of the company's annual turnover being given back.

“Reality Tours definitely does lots of good here,” says Bronwyn McBride, programs executive at Atma, a Mumbai-based non-profit that works with Reality Gives and other local educational NGOs to maximize resources and build capacity.

The company reported an income of Rs 41 lakh during the 2010 financial year (April 1, 2009 to May 31, 2010), or slightly more than US$92,000.

According to Way’s estimate, nearly 40 percent of this, or approximately US$23,000, will go back into Dharavi through Reality Gives’ programs -- money the community wouldn’t see otherwise.

Profitable tourist business versus non-profit organization

And yet, Reality Tours has been criticized by other NGOs working in the slum.

Nirmal Chandappa, director of Community Outreach Program (CORP), one of Dharavi’s first NGOs, feels the business masquerades as an NGO to make money.

“Krishna took his groups to see our projects,” says Chandappa, referring to the days before Reality Tours had its own kindergarten and community center, “but we never saw any sort of donation.”

Chandappa stresses the difference between an NGO that works hard to help Dharavi’s residents and a business created to capitalize on the city’s grinding poverty. Nirmal himself lives with his wife, two kids and 28 adopted girls in a CORP-sponsored shelter home nearby.

Still, Chandappa wouldn’t tell travelers to skip the Reality Tour.

“Some people just want pictures,” he says. “But if 100 people are visiting, two to three people might help.”

So what is the best way to help Dharavi’s residents, the unlucky majority poorly served by a government that only shows up during campaign season?

One of the biggest problems in NGO-land, especially for an overstretched charity like CORP, is resources.

CORP runs a network of schools, daycares, shelter homes for orphans and abandoned children, centers for handicapped kids and senior citizens, a counseling center for abused women, plus a beautician training course, tailoring center and other vocational training programs in Dharavi and 12 other slums around the city. 

There’s never enough time or money for marketing -- a critical component for a group that relies on donors and volunteers.

Yet for Reality Tours, marketing is clearly a strength.

Last year, the company brought an average of 22 tourists into Dharavi per day (averaging 32 per day during peak months like December and January). Even if the majority are just in it for a photo opportunity, there’s still a chance a few might donate a few extra rupees, or some extra clothing and English books, or even a few hours of their day, which could make a huge difference to CORP or a different Dharavi-based NGO.

Reality Tours does make a difference in Dharavi. And so do all of us to the local economy just by traveling and living in here. But there must be a way to better divide the cash cow that’s poverty tourism with all of the Dharavi’s NGOs and residents.

Perhaps it’s as simple as adding a few stops to Reality Tour’s circuit, to highlight the slum’s social projects as well as its businesses, or encouraging tourists to stop by CORP’s Dharavi-based shelter home once the tour is over.

Naysayers, be damned. There’s something positive about slumming it.

Reality Tours & Travel, Unique Business Service Centre, Akber House, 1/F Nowroji Fardonji Road, opposite Laxmi Vilas Hotel, Colaba; +91 (0)22 22833872, +91 9820822253;

CORP, Community Outreach Programme (CORP), Methodist Centre, 1/F, 21 YMCA Road, Mumbai Central; +91 (0)22 23086789;