Why We Need Micro Loans Instead Of Slum Tourism

by Trip Sweeney Mar 7, 2007

Recent articles by the BBC, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, The Smithsonian Magazine, and others have discussed various aspects of “slum tourism.”

This phenomenon, which began in Rio de Janeiro around 1992 and has now been popularized in Buenos Aires, New Delhi, Johannesburg, and Nairobi, is the most famous (or infamous) example of a new, increasingly popular genre of “reality tourism” called “safe-danger” or “controlled edge” tourism.

The same questionable ethical arguments that support slum tourism are also being applied in the development and promotion of other “safe-danger” tourism options.

Supporters of the current trends in “safe-danger” (which may include slum tourism, dark tourism, grief tourism, war-zone tourism, etc) claim that these tours can help bridge divides, educate the traveler’s worldview, inspire action and advocacy, and can generate income to benefit the local communities.

Bearing Witness or Pity Tours?

For example, The World Travel Market 2006 Global Trends (pdf) report suggests armed-guard escorted tours around “no-go areas of highly volatile cities” or the chance to meet child soldier in Sierra Leone could serve to help raise socio-political awareness and be coupled with the potential for “providing individuals affected by conflict with a means of living, allowing tourism revenue to benefit at grassroots level.”

However, others highlight the fact that when done irresponsibly, these tours cause local communities to resent travelers, are grossly self-serving and voyeuristic for the traveler, and move us further from peace and progress through travel.

One car wash worker in a Kenyan slum where tourists visit expressed his feeling that,

“They see us like puppets, they want to come and take pictures, have a little walk, tell their friends they’ve been to the worst slum in Africa, but nothing changes for us.”

A local journalist made the sarcastic comment,

“Kibera is the rave spot in Kenya…For where else can one see it all in one simple stop? The AIDS victims dying slowly on a cold, cardboard bed. The breastless teenager. … Plastic-eating goats fighting small children … and – ah yes – the famous ‘shit-rolls-downhill-flying-toilets’. It is unbeatable.”

Based on the growing trend of tourists “searching out more radical travel plans, making itineraries out of travel advisory warnings and relying on blogs and user-generated content sites to organise their ‘danger trip,’ The Global Trends Report makes the following recommendation for Africa, with a forecasted 42 million international tourist arrivals by 2010:

“Rather than competing amongst itself for a share of the nature pie (including ecotourism), which has already been cornered by the more established tourism markets, African countries need to assess their unique offering, tapping into their often painful past to look for ways to target the up-and-coming, high-spend reality and extreme tourism sector.”

The report does emphasize that “sensationalizing past horrors must be avoided.”

A Paradigm Shift

We would like to present a new concept in tourism; a travel experience that celebrates the individuals in developing countries looking hopefully into the future with an entrepreneurial spirit.

The concept is micro-finance tours, where what you go to see is empowerment and progress and what you go to do is meet individuals, learn about their culture and local businesses, and show your support for their work.

Micro-loans are lent and coordinated by banks, non-bank financial institutions, cooperative/credit unions, or non-profit organizations.

Across 21 African countries there are approximately 3.89 million individuals who are working their way out of poverty with micro-loans.

This figure represents the tremendous number of poverty-stricken individuals who are involved in business activities that represent important aspects of culture, are in reliable contact with a local organization, and are trying to pay back high-interest-rate loans with the hope of realizing a better life.

What Does A Microfinace Tour Look Like?

Depending on where you go in Africa, a microfinance tour could look something like this:

Wherever your microfinance tour leads you, you will be observing and supporting the small, significant successes of people in poverty who are moving hopefully forward.

In the morning you and up to 5 others meet up with a member from the local organization that coordinates the micro-lending in the communities. You learn the basics about microfinance and the role it has played in the nearby communities. Then you head out to meet some of the people involved.

For breakfast, you visit a 30 yr old married woman with 2 children, who bakes and sells bread at the main intersection in a rural town. She welcomes you. She and everyone else you visit this day will know that you have come in support of their skills and their businesses. She gives you some of her sweetbread, teaches you the way she makes it, and shares her hopes and plans for opening a bakery.

For lunch you’ll stop at a local restaurant recently opened by a 50 yr old woman with four children to help make ends meet at home. With pride, she serves food from family recipes and is excited because she has never had a foreign visitor before.

In the afternoon you choose to either visit…

…the community where a 57 yr old man grew into his own business by renting a sewing machine with a micro-loan and setting up shop under a shade tree. He now has his own shop and makes clothing, does alterations, and gives sewing lessons for people in the community.


…a tiny fishing village where a group of young women are starting their gejj business, a process of salting and drying fresh fish. You can see or even participate in the process, and perhaps ride with the women and the gejj to some of the remote towns where they take it to market.

Wherever your microfinance tour leads you, you will be observing and supporting the small, significant successes of people in poverty who are moving hopefully forward.

As one resident of a Kenyan slum put it, his neighborhood “does not need pity tours, it needs action.” Microfinance tours recognize and support the action that is taking place.

An Alternative To Pity

We propose the development of microfinance tours as an alternative model to slum tourism and its “safe-danger” relatives because it gives travelers the opportunity to find adventure in uncommon places, meet local people, and support tourism-independent entrepreneurs who are trying to work out of poverty but have loans they need to pay back.

By 2010, if 1% of the international visitors to Africa by 2010 would go on a microfinance day tour priced at 50 dollars, this would generate 21 million dollars per year which (after subtracting tour operating costs) could be used to help lower loan interest rates and expand the reach of micro-loans to give more people opportunity.

Also, the individuals you visit would ideally be listed on www.kiva.org, so you could either lend directly to the locals you have met (or plan to meet) or to whom you have already lent.

In 1985, Pope John Paul II, a former professor of ethics from Poland, said “the encounters engendered among peoples through travel are not only a condition for the realization of peace but a positive contribution towards peace.”

In 2006, Mohammad Yunus, a Muslim from Bangladesh, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a banker for his work in pioneering microfinance because “Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is one such means.”

So instead of “tapping into their often painful past to look for ways to target the up-and-coming, high-spend reality and extreme tourism sector,” as The Global Trends Report suggested, perhaps travelers and organizers in developing countries could inspire a paradigm shift by linking tourism and microfinance to help realize poverty alleviation and peace.

Would you be interested in having a microfinance tour as a component of your next trip to Africa, Latin America, or Asia?

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