On Touring Poverty

by Jasmine Lau:

The guide walked us through the maze of Kampung Pulo, an informal settlement in Jakarta, Indonesia. The tenements, a hodgepodge of concrete, corrugated metal sheets, and wooden planks, lacked doors or locks, leaving the 147 poor families that live there with little privacy. As we slowly made our way through the sewage-strewn alleyways, a woman wrapped in a towel gave us a nonchalant glance while doing her laundry. Half-naked men dozed on the ground amidst buzzing flies. Children played tag barefoot in the gutter.

Slum tours come in many different forms, but they have always been controversial. The first favela tours in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil sprung up more than 15 years ago, offering guided visits of neighborhoods notorious for violence and drug trafficking. While operators and advocates claimed that these tours could raise awareness about poverty and stimulate the local economy, people shuddered at the idea of foreign tourists gawking at miserable conditions and snapping photographs of the squalor. Critics called these tours voyeuristic for trivializing poverty into entertainment and even argued that they violate the basic rights of residents who never give their consent to participate.

Despite the criticism, offshoots of the favela tours are now found all over the world, from township tours in South Africa to slum tours in India. As a traveler, I understood the instinctive allure of venturing off the charted territory of sterile, traditional tourist sights to see the lifestyle of ordinary people. My curiosity piqued, I signed up for a tour of the “hidden side” of Jakarta.

The tour took three hours, a sweaty trek through two different slums in Jakarta. I came back with dusty jeans, a memory card full of photos, and a considerably lighter wallet but little mental enlightenment or emotional growth. The living conditions at the kampungs were appalling, but I had expected it. I lacked any sense of true shock. While the trip did not strike me as voyeuristic, the poverty felt cheapened when the guides pointed it out in attempt to evoke in us a sense of pathos. It bothered me that I had been made to feel sorry for the residents.

I was also troubled by Ronny Poulan, the founder of Jakarta Hidden Tours. In his forties and a former film producer, Poulan was kindhearted and socially conscious but patronizing and clueless with regards to the ethics of tourism as well as the protocols of successful charity. “Photos are for a good purpose, and the people do not refuse,” he told me when I expressed my concern about photography being disrespectful. He called us “angels” for reaching out to the locals, a label that made me uneasy; I harbored no delusions about the self-beneficial nature of the tour. Half of the profits from the trip goes to an NGO that Poulan founded which reinvests in the community. But from one of its “projects” I saw on the tour, a one-room community center where Poulan’s daughter was the only regular volunteer teacher, I was not convinced that the trip had any real charitable impact or that Poulan was even driven to do good.

While friends have told me about other tours that were more sensitive and focused on culture and history rather than simple poverty, I was still unsure. Even if reasonable ground rules are set that ensure that the trip is respectful and less intrusive, what makes it this experience “better,” more authentic or more powerful, than watching a documentary? Do we really need to a three-hour tour to understand the lives of the more unfortunate? What are we going to do with this information and this experience afterwards? Personally, I do not have a satisfactory answer, which is why I will not be taking another trip.

The president of Brazil just unveiled a grand plan to bring tourists at the 2016 Olympics on a new wave of favela tours. I shudder to think what this entails: Slum tours incorporated into a mass tourism formula sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Jasmine Lau ’12 is an Economics and International Studies double major in Silliman College. Contact her at jasmine.lau@yale.edu.