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Slum Tourism: Is it Exploitative or Enlightening?

Historical Roots of Slum Tourism

The concept of “slum tourism” has been around since the time the rich wanted to experience life in the “deprived” and “risqué” spaces occupied by the marginalised communities of late-19th-century London.Today it is a profitable business, bringing more than a million tourists every year to informal settlements in various cities across the world. Proponents of the industry say that slum tourism creates discourse that could result in positive change, and that the profits help the local slum communities.

Critics argue that the tours are intrinsically exploitative. This brief takes stock of some of the more well-established slum tours in different parts of the world, evaluates the genesis of the industry and, using Mumbai’s Dharavi as a case study, probes its current relevance.

Typing in “slum tours” on the popular travel website, Tripadvisor, will lead to pictures of smiling, well-dressed foreign tourists, their arms around locals, with derelict slums in the background. “Slum tours”, as a concept, can be traced to the act called “slumming” in the 1860s; “slumming” itself was a word added to the Oxford Dictionary at the time, meaning “to go into, or frequent, slums for discreditable purposes; to saunter about,with a suspicion, perhaps, of immoral pursuits.”

Slumming became a routine activity when rich Londoners braved the city’s notorious East End in the late 19th century. They left their elegant homes and clubs in Mayfair and Belgravia – still London’s most upmarket neighbourhoods until today – and crowded onto horse-drawn omnibuses bound for midnight tours of the slums of East London. More than a century later, the

practice was brought to New York City as a form of amusement to compare slums abroad, giving birth to the designated touring practices through the non -white section of Harlem.Oxford and Cambridge Universities also started using the concept to understand underprivileged neighbourhoods and inform 19th-century social development policy by witnessing first -hand the lives of people living in those areas.

Following the end of apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s, the country saw a significant increase in the number of international arrivals from 3.6 million in 1994 to 9.1 million in 2002. In that period, the tourism sector outshined the historically lucrativegold-mining sector in revenues.Tourism in post-apartheid South Africa started off as a niche form of tourism for politically interested travellers who wanted to visit the South Western Townships (or Soweto), which were the centr e of political repression during the anti-apartheid struggle.

Since then, tour destinations in the coun try have expanded along the same theme, trying to engage tourists with the urban residents of areas that were formerly classified as “non-white” and planned according to the old regime’s championship of racial segregation.

The Dharavi area of Mumbai is the second -largest slum in Asia, and the third -largest in the world. Dharavi is not a desolate and deprived community of unemployed squatters. Within the congested alleys of shanties there are booming home industries that sustain 20,000 small-scale units.A New York Times mapping of the industrial slum area describes the northe rn 13th Compound as the heart of Dharavi’s recycling industry, where an estimated 80 percent of Mumbai’s plastic waste is recycled in approximately 15,000 single-room factories.

It also describes the southern Kumbharwada region as production spaces of the migrant potters from Saurashtra. The Maharashtra Slum Redevelopment Authority (SRA) describes Dharavi’s growth as “closely interwoven with the pattern of migration into Bombay”,due to the land being free and unregulated.

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