Poorism or tourism

BY: Kofi Apkabli
Burning e-waste at Agbogbloshie in Accra
Burning e-waste at Agbogbloshie in Accra

Modern tourists want an authentic experience, not the white-washed tourist zones that were so popular in the 1980s.

The movement then was underpinned by having fun in the “sun, sea and sand.’’

That form of tourism was also characterised by staying mostly in beach resorts or being shepherded in tour buses through the high streets of cities.For contrast, visiting poor areas easily came as the option. Slum tourism meets this desire offering a look into the world beyond their personal experience.

For contrast, visiting poor areas easily came as the option. Slum tourism meets this desire offering a look into the world beyond their personal experience.

As a niche, slum tourism is mainly performed in urban areas of developing countries.  It is usually about getting close to see "how the other people live.


The first international conference on slum tourism was held in Bristol in 2010 where a social network of people working in or with slum tourism was set up.

The tourism form continues to grow in popularity. According to researchers as well as recent reports, about one million tourists visited these sites somewhere in the world in 2014.

The interesting thing about slum tourism is the motivation. In tourism, establishing motivation determines product design and even marketing.

For most of the tourism forms we have, the push factors are social comparison, entertainment, education, or self-actualisation.

Now, which of the listed motivations would you ascribe to slum tourism? In other words, who would be entertained or achieve self-actualisation just by strolling through dangerous narrow streets and sniffing in bad smell?

The answer, really, is that tourists who visit slums are motivated primarily by curiosity. And if you understand human beings you’d realise that few drives can compete with curiosity.

Curiosity defies fear, inconvenience, filth, eye sores and even danger. This takes us to our next point, safety with slum tourism.

Like it is in all areas of tourism, slum tourism can be safe — or not. It involves coming to close contact with neighbourhoods associated with murder, prostitution and drugs.

 When choosing a slum tour, guests should use due diligence to determine if a tour business is licensed, has a good reputation and follows local guidelines.

Beyond the danger, slum tourism has been the subject of much controversy. Both critiques and defences of the practice have been made in the editorial pages of well-established journals.

 A primary accusation that the advocates against slum tourism make is that it turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from.

The majority of tourists reported positive feelings during the tour, with interest and intrigue as the most commonly cited feelings. Many tourists often come to the slums to put their life in perspective.

Some slum tourists get bashed for various reasons. They are accused of intruding in the lives of poor disadvantaged communities.

 In 2013 controversy arose when a company called "Real Bronx Tours" was discovered offering tours of The Bronx advertised as "a ride through a real New York City 'ghetto.'

But not every slum tourists is interested in ‘how do they live.’ Some might want to know more about their life stories and oftentimes the discrimination they face from local governments and from those with permanent housing.

Activists, especially, are interested in this fact of inequality. This interest in social issues and concern for the general human condition engage other such tourists.

The truth of the matter is that if handled well, the tours to poor areas could provide employment and income for local guides.  There could be opportunity for craft-workers to sell souvenirs and may invest back in the community with profit that is earned.

Similarly, the argument has been raised that well-off tourists may be more motivated to help as a result.

We have seen two diagonal views of this niche. Both reactions are understandable, and spotlight the uneasy distinction locals in the area might have drawn between being viewed rather than feeling seen. Of course, the reality could be more complex.

I believe in our Ghanaian situation we could achieve something with slum tourism. Particularly, if the tours are community-based, where negative stereotypes are challenged and local residents have control over and benefit from tourism activities.

This could bring real and lasting benefits to some of our poorest communities.