From slumming to poorism – the ultimate holiday

As I read recently in “Tourist gaze” by John Urry people go on holidays to experience something out of ordinary that will stimulate their senses and offer as much of a contrast as possible. I suppose for people who tried it all poorism might be the answer.

Let me give you some facts from history of poorism before I move on to my thoughts on the subject. The phenomenon started in 1884 in London. People visited neighborhoods such as Whitechapel or Shoreditch to see how the poor lived. From London it spread to New York and Africa. In South Africa and Namibia international tourists wanted  learn more about apartheid and therefore visited poor black neighbourhoods. As you can imagine different countries in Asia (India being the most popular) started to offer similar possibilities.

I have to admit the first time I heard term ‘poorism’ I instantly condemned it. My line of thinking was: the rich and bored go to poor country to take some snaps of slums just to make themselves feel better and shock friends after they come back. I was thinking they have no consideration or care for the people living there. The tour operators create a performance of reality asking men amd women to stage their lives paying pennies for it. Then I got even more into the avalanche of thoughts comparing poorism to watching animals (not even in zoo but) in circus. Shame and disgust washed over me. And in was time to explore. I started reading the articles and opinions and noticed some positive outcomes of the phenomenon.

First of all who am I to say what people in favelas or slums feel about those tours (reminding myself I don’t know everything). I can only imagine and make assumptions. Secondly if they sell their crafts, benefit from founded schools and do not protest against the tours, maybe they consider it worth it, who am I to judge. I have been to Asia a couple of times and noticed that it is in deed true that people in the poor parts work or do something all the time. Sell, cook, clean, transport goods… Thirdly my opinion is that it’s better to help somebody earn means for living than give money to him for nothing. This is because at some point you will run out of money to give and somebody who learns how to earn money has a life long skill. Slum tours create a new market and opportunity for people who live in them to make a living.

Maybe the ethical truth is: “It has everything to do with who you are and why you’re going”

A 2010 study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that tourists in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum were motivated primarily by curiosity, as opposed to several competing push factors such as social comparison, entertainment, education, or self-actualization. In addition, the study found that most slum residents were ambivalent about the tours, while the majority of tourists reported positive feelings during the tour, with interest and intrigue as the most commonly cited feelings.

In one of the articles I also read:

I’m reminded of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, a recent book in which the author shows how westerners, suffering from spurious delusions that our lives are somehow fake or artificial, tie themselves in knots chasing an “authenticity” that doesn’t really exist. Entire industries have grown up around this urge. For some, it means shopping at Whole Foods; for others it entails visiting the grottiest parts of the globe.

Something to think about as I’m actually in the middle of finding my BIG DREAM, what I want to do, where I want to live, what is most important for me, how can I be happy. No answers yet and it seems the more I think the less I do. At this point Andrew Potter’s book might be a good read. In the next post if you are interested I will say more in the subject.

Slum tours:

– Delhi – street children

– Mumbai

– Soweto in Johannesburg

– favelas of Rio

– Bronx & East Harlem

– Hutongs in Beijing

– Cairo

– Mazatlan, Mexico

– Kibera & Korogocho, Nairobi

– after Hurricane Katrina Louisiana

– Brussels, Belgium

– Utrecht, Netherlands

fancy further reading: Guardian, Smithsonian, The Daily Beast, Digital Journal, Ode Magazine, The National,  Ethical traveler, New York Times,



  1. If the tour operator was run as a social enterprise and invested at least 50% of the profits into local projects in the areas on the tour maybe.

    Like you though I’m a bit horrified by the “well off” observing the “poor” in that way.

    All that said I’m sure if I lived in those areas those tourists would just equal more possible customers and I might let them gawp all they want if it meant feeding my family.

    But then most criminals use a similar excuse to say why they went into a life of crime ” I had a family to feed” blah blah.

    In an ideal world absolutely not but in this one I’d probably ask the people who live in these tourist hot spots what they think first Jo

    1. The journalists who write the articles I came across claim that the entrepreneurs claim to give 80% when they will start earning money. Not sure if this is only a way to avoid guilt or is it genuine and true. I think we are taught by movies, newspapers and marketing to doubt good intentions where money is concern.
      I agree the best thing would be to simply go and ask what they think but what is the possibility the opinions being versified? I won’t be drawing any conclusions, but the fact is things are almost never purely white or black.

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