Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Slumming It: The Tourist Valorization of Urban Poverty

Fabian Frenzel

Zed Books



More than a million tourists visited informal settlements in 2014, largely in South Africa. Frenzel points out that this is not a new trend; in previous centuries wealthy Londoners “slummed it” in the impoverished East End, while white New Yorkers did the same in black Harlem. However, the phenomenon has become increasingly internationalized, popularized and diversified since the 1990s. For instance, tourists can now go bungee jumping over Soweto in Johannesburg. They can also visit squatter communities in Berlin.

This book attempts a critical analysis, using economic and social theory, of modern-day slum tourism. It is commonplace to condemn slum tourism for dehumanizing residents or commodifying poverty, but Frenzel questions basic assumptions about power relations and acceptable behaviour. For instance, he asks, “How does academic fieldwork, activism or journalism differ from a tourist visit to a slum?” (page 9).

One argument for the potentially beneficial character of slum tourism is that the very act of viewing, so often dismissed as stigmatizing when the wealthy are viewing the poor, is important for informal settlements that authorities frequently attempt to ignore. By excluding such areas from maps or policies, those in power are trying to erase portions of a city that conflict with exclusionary visions of “order”. A slum tourist, as crass as he may be, is calling attention to an area off the map. It is unfortunate that wealthy voices are privileged over poor ones, but strategically using tourist voices to amplify local ones may be a pragmatic strategy for positive change.

This can be particularly dramatic following major events, such as sporting events and conferences. For instance, one storyline that emerged around the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was government officials’ attempts to displace and make invisible the city’s many favela residents. The outrage this provoked led local NGOs to spontaneously conduct tours of at-risk favelas. After the summit, favela tourism continued to grow. Tourism facilities, from hostels to art installations, were established.

Rio’s favela tourism has developed in parallel with governmental policies of regeneration and pacification of gang violence, and in settlements like Rocinha these have been explicitly linked. Like many aspects of slum tourism, pacification has been highly contested by residents; some welcome the improvement of basic services, while others worry about increasing rents. It will be ironic if slum tourism, which many NGOs hope will stem displacement, ends up unleashing a wave of gentrification that ultimately uproots slum dwellers anyway.

Frenzel points out another type of irony when it comes to the beneficiaries of slum tourism. For example, in South Africa in the 1990s, “A rather bitter irony emerged whereby township tourism ostensibly celebrated the heritage of struggle against white minority rule, but its proceeds went into mainstream tourism operations owned by white South Africans” (page 111).

Yet positive alternatives exist, such as the walking tours conducted by resident activists in inner-city Johannesburg. In this racially polarized city, progressive tour operators hope to build bridges between racial enclaves, whether these are the gated communities of white South Africans or the townships of black South Africans. Activist tourism, like volunteer tourism, comes with its own set of problems, from accountability to the wider resident community to the persistent issue of voyeurism.

Thus, Slumming It resists reductive treatment of slum tourism as universally positive or negative. What it does raise the possibility of is “how tourism may contribute to a politics of solidarity” (page 196). How to implement this politics remains an open question.


Further reading:

Ashley, Caroline, Dilys Roe and Harold Goodwin (2001), Pro-Poor Tourism Strategies: Making Tourism Work for the Poor, Overseas Development Institute, International Institute for Environment and Development, and Centre for Responsible Tourism, available at http://pubs.iied.org/9078IIED.html.

Burgold, Julia and Manfred Rolfes (2013), “Of voyeuristic safari tours and responsible tourism with educational value: Observing moral communication in slum and township tourism in Cape Town and Mumbai”, Die ERDE Vol 144, No 2, pages 161–174, available at http://www.die-erde.org/index.php/die-erde/article/view/61.

Landesman, Tucker (2012), “Remaking Rio: favela tourism and the tourist narrative”, FAVELissues, 22 February, available at https://favelissues.com/2012/02/22/remaking-rio-favela-tourism-and-the-tourist-narrative-part-i/.


Book note prepared by Christine Ro

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