The “revolución bolivariana” has done little to improve the living conditions of slum dwellers. What they have done is destroy the local economy and skyrocketed insecurity to completely destroy Venezuela’s tourism. Thankfully, this has completely avoided the development of slum tourism companies and has maintained “slumming” as a foreign term in Venezuela. I first encountered slum tourism while developing research on Dharavi, what is promotionally called “Asia’s largest slum”. Though this statement is not true, it is a really good slogan to lure tourists into the deep alleyways of Dharavi.
As I scrolled through the website, I realized I had experienced slum tourism when working in the informal community of “El Cocal” in Quepos, Costa Rica. It consisted of a group of 10-15 people riding around the beach town in segways, taking photos of people as if they were animals in exhibition. I say this because I’m Venezuelan so I merge easily between Costa Ricans and felt exactly like an animal in a safari. The tour guide wore a Roman soldier’s helmet, and pointed out poverty to his crowd. They had no interaction with people, not even to say a polite good afternoon and didn’t think twice before sticking their phones into windows to try to get a glimpse of how “terrible” it is to live in a place like this. This experience deeply infuriated me as I watched these strangers take photos without a tinge of respect for the humans being showcased in their instagram stories.
I believe deeply in the importance of creating awareness about the living conditions a third of the world’s population lives under, but slum tourism is definitely not a way to achieve this.
The main problem with slum tourism it that it can’t guarantee the visitor’s reflection, because we now live in a instagram story world where everything that happens is about oneself. People go on these tours and just come back home thinking how lucky THEY are, but little do they think about how unfair it is that these people live this way and have no way to improve it. The real lesson to be learnt during these slum tours is the story behind the settlement and the story behind the hundreds of collaborators and efforts that put together a city from scratch. The lesson to be learnt is that people who live in unplanned settlements are just as hardworking as people in the rest of the city who wake up early every morning to provide to their families and try to make their lives better every day. The story to be learnt is that, despite all this, the system and the government continue to act as an obstacle for the incremental development of these communities.
The Dharavi tour is now on the top 15 things to do in Mumbai according to Trip Advisor, but does little to change Mumbaiker’s reaction when you tell them you’re going on a tour of Dharavi. And quite frankly, after speaking to tourists who’ve been part of the slum tour, little does it do to get the real issue across: these people have a right to prosper and to improve their living conditions. So, I deeply disagree with Dr. Fabian Frenzel who studies tourism of urban poverty at the University of Leicester, and who pointed out in an article by National Geographic titled “Inside the Controversial World of Slum Tourism” that one of the key disadvantages of poverty is a lack of recognition and voice. “If you want to tell a story, you need an audience, and tourism provides that audience.” Frenzel argues that even taking the most commodifying tour is better than ignoring that inequality completely.
Before taking tourists into slums, we would have to get locals into the slum. We would have to erase the divide between the “formal” and “informal” city. We would have to destroy the stigma against these neighborhoods. We would have to see the city as a whole and not as fragments of formality and informality. We would have to stop the aesthetization of poverty and bring the human aspects to light. We would have to create reasons for people who live outside these neighborhoods to want to visit them, we would have to promote the beautiful viewpoints that Petare has that show the immensity of Caracas, we would have visit local restaurant for a quick lunch, we would have to host festivals and fairs in these neighborhoods to promote local production and, we would definitely have to start viewing them as part of the same city.
The moment our cities start functioning as one, we won’t need slum tours to bring tourists inside, it would be their own wonder and curiosity that would take them through the narrow staircases of venezuelan cerros. It would be the flavors of the best chai in the Dharavi main road corner store or the traditional costa rican restaurant whose smells would lure people into the intricate grid of the many unplanned neighborhoods that are part of the city too.