'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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there