Responsible Tourism or Voyeurism? A Look at Slum Tours in Dharavi

First stop on the Responsible Tourism Train: the slums. Squalor. Starvation. Defecation on the street. Welcome to Dharavi. Want to take pictures? Well, you can't. At least, not if you're with the tour group Reality Tours and Travel. They forbid picture-taking and aspire to protect the privacy of the residents. Thoughtful, isn't it?

Reality Tours and Travel was established to "show the positive side of the slums" and breakdown "negative stereotypes". In 2007, the founders Christopher Way and Krishna Poojari set up a community center, providing computer and English classes to residents. In 2009, they set up the charity "Reality Gives," which focuses on the education of Indian youth. So, you tour, and 80% of the profits goes to NGO's (including their own). It sounds kind of like responsible tourism.

Or does it?

This so-called slum touring--sometimes called "pourism" or "poorism"--has encountered a lot of rage. Times Now, an Indian television channel attacked Reality Tours, and a tourism official called them "parasites need to be investigated and put behind bars." A state lawmaker threatened to put an end to their work. But, Reality Tours is still going strong, and they have never even advertised. There's a market for this sort of thing.

Reality Tours is not the first tour group to take advantage of the unusual touristic opportunities in an impoverished neighborhood. Christopher Way founded the company after his visit to the famous favelas in Rio de Janeiro. There are tours in Nairobi's Mukuru District, Cape Town's District Six and in Chicago you can take "Beauty's Ghetto Bus Tours".  Some of these tour companies, like Reality Tours, express interest in responsible tourism and giving back to the community. Others don't. All of them, though, appear to continually attract curious tourists.

Dharavi is certainly a sight to behold. Over one million people live in Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, which covers approximately one square kilometer in Mumbai. According to one estimate, Dharavi has only one toilet for every 1,440 people. It's also the home to a myriad of small-scale industries, including recycling facilities and the making of leather goods, soaps, blue jeans and pottery. Dharavi generates an estimated 665 million (USD) in annual revenue. People are extremely busy there, and they work purposefully with focused attention.

Bronwyn McBride, a traveller who spends her time between Canada and India, recently remarked that everyone in Dharavi was so busy working, no one begged. She described her experience with Reality Tours as extremely refreshing, and applauded their emphasis on responsible tourism. She wrote that Dharavi was a place to observe "the spirit and resolve of humanity."

So is Dharavi an exercise in responsible tourism or appalling voyeurism? Perhaps it's a matter of intention. Shame on the tourist who is interested in seeing poverty so she can (1) check it off her to-do list, (2) feel better about herself or (3) to leer at people as if they were animals. But, for those interested in responsible tourism--individuals hoping to walk gently and give generously wherever they go--why not? The same goes for the guides: after all, they understand economic poverty does not equal cultural poverty.

Photo credit: erin