'And, of course, we went to the shanty towns'

These days, right-on tourists visit the deprived side of cities because they want to do some good. They're fooling themseves, says Jeremy Atiyah

These days, it seems, no tour of a major world city is complete without delving into its slums. Not content with conventional tourist attractions such as monuments and museums, 'right-on' travellers are now turning up in shanty towns, ghettos and other areas of urban deprivation around the world.

Popular destinations include parts of Harlem and the Bronx in New York City, Mother Theresa's Calcutta, the favelas of Rio and Sao Paulo in Brazil and some of the so-called "black townships" of South Africa such as Soweto outside Johannesburg.

The question is, why are tourists doing this? Does it spring from a heart- felt desire to contribute to the welfare of the city's poorest inhabitants? Or do people just go along for the entertainment?

The favourite big idea of some travellers - that a city's slums represent its "essence" - is a selective travesty. Certainly the East End of London has qualities that the cultural hotch-potch of the West End does not. But this doesn't mean, of course, that visiting the East End is going to earn anyone the gratitude of the poor.

London Walks, a company specialising in tours of historic interest, conducts walks in areas such as Whitechapel and Brixton. "We go into areas like these because they are of historical interest, not because some people call them slums," says spokeswoman Mary Tucker. "We certainly don't take people on tours specifically to look at poor people."

Not everyone agrees. Fernando Carioca, who guides tourists around the favelas (shanty towns) of Rio de Janeiro, thinks tourists should see his slum-dwellers. "Forty per cent of the population of Rio live in favelas," he declares. "If you miss this you miss half the city. It's only by seeing favelas with your own eyes that you'll understand they aren't all about criminality. Normal people live there. Tourists should know about things like that."

And in New York City, where slums are supposed to be off-limits to tourists, Harlem Penny Sightseeing Tours has been showing tourists deprived areas of Harlem for 30 years. "Black people didn't used to like white people coming in here because we associated it with strangers taking our homes and jobs," says a spokeswoman. "But now it's more acceptable. Tourism brings money. There are lots of new shops and restaurants around here."

But was it gawping tourists who brought in the money? Traveller Sarah Johnstone, who visited Soweto on a coach tour during a trip to South Africa, says her main emotion was sheer embarrassment. "A lot of the people just went on the tour to be able to brag about it to their friends afterwards. There was one guy running round someone's dirty kitchen with a camcorder. It really did feel like voyeurism, rich people looking at poor people. And I felt hostility towards us on the part of the locals."

But tourists by the coach-load are never an edifying spectacle, even in Bond Street or Knightsbridge. No wonder the Sowetans didn't like them. What Sarah Johnstone's experience really shows is that most of us are voyeurs. In which case, why not be proud of it?

Guy Moberly, travel photographer, finds slums fascinating - as slums. "I don't care what slum-dwellers think of me," he argues. "There's much more local flavour in a slum. In Harlem, the noise, the rudeness and aggression are quintessentially New York. And in, say, the slums of Bombay there's an intensity of experience you won't get elsewhere, even in India. The smell of shit and sewage, the collapsing shops, the incredibly rough looking people. It's not nice, but seeing that was a much more powerful experience than seeing the Taj Mahal."

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?