Kate Simon: Is slum tourism just about voyeurism?

Four weeks of wall-to-wall football matches may not be everyone's idea of top TV.

But, between games, the coverage of the 2010 World Cup on the BBC has also included some interesting programmes about the poverty faced by millions of South Africans.

And while Alan Shearer is no Charles Wheeler, his report from a township, in which he spoke to local activists about their struggle to overcome the legacy of apartheid and whether they thought the World Cup would bring change, made for welcome and thoughtful viewing.

To ignore the hardship that continues to blight the lives of black South Africans almost two decades since the colour bar was smashed would be crass. That's clearly the attitude of some of the fans who have travelled to South Africa. The packages they bought will have included the option to bolt on a safari, visit the vineyards, travel the Garden Route – and tour a township.

Thomson Sport, one of the official agents for 2010's premier sporting event, organised a special day trip in collaboration with i-to-i, a specialist in volunteer travel, where fans could take a tour of a township, Masiphumelele near Cape Town.

After taking a look around and meeting the locals, the fans visited the local Fish Hoek Association Football Club where they were defeated in a match, then helped renovate the local kindergarten. The £20 fee that each person paid for the tour was donated in full to the township, I'm told.

True, there were celebrities present and Thomson Sport made the most of the photo opportunity, but fans whose world view stretched beyond the terraces will have enjoyed an experience they will never forget. Well, bully for them – wasn't it just voyeurism?

A few years ago I travelled to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil with a group of travel journalists. We flew business class and stayed at the Copacabana Palace, South America's premier address. As is typical of these jollies, I was asked if there was anything I'd particularly like to do. "Visit a favela," was my reply.

"Why?" asked a fellow travel editor. "We're staying at one of the best hotels in the world. Why do you want to go to see a slum?" For me it was simple. To visit Rio, stay in five-star style (Flavio Briatore, David Coulthard and Naomi Campbell were poolside) and only take in Sugar Loaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer would be to see one side of that city.

The trip – which all the journalists, including the sceptic, enthusiastically joined me on – was led by a man who lived in a favela. It was a revelation. We learnt not just about the poverty, but also about how these communities are not dens of thieves, they are where ordinary people have to live out their ordinary lives – raising families, going to work, paying the bills – but on the outside of the law, governed by the drug gangs.

The argument about slum tourism is complex. I don't believe for a moment that the money earned through tourism will make much of a difference. The people trapped in this kind of extreme poverty can only liberate themselves. But there is something very positive about the fact that people from wealthy countries don't want to turn their faces away from the hardships faced by fellow world citizens.

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