Photo: Donatas Dabravolskas/Shutterstock

How To Go on a Slum Tour Without Being an Asshole

by Cindy Kroon Jun 9, 2016

THE B&B YOU’RE STAYING AT while traveling offers an organized tour through the poorest, most controversial, otherwise inaccessible areas in the city. You’ve read about those “slum tours,” and wonder whether you should join.

On the one hand it appears to be a great opportunity to see a side of the city other than cocktails and coconuts. Then again, you dislike the idea of exploiting poverty, and you don’t want to stare at poor people as if they were animals in a zoo.

You are right.

Joining a slum tour will likely be a major highlight of your trip. It will give you invaluable insights into parts of society, culture, and local politics you otherwise don’t get to see or understand. It will give a human face to poverty and struggle. It will make you realize that those less fortunate than you each have hopes and desires not that different from your own.

But there is also a very real risk that your behavior and/or tour company does more harm than good in the communities you visit. So, you should only join a slum tour if you can avoid that from happening.

Here’s how to join a slum tour without being an asshole:

1. Join for the right reasons

Your intention for joining a slum tour is important. You are likely to see a way of living very different from your own. You’ll learn that things are more complicated than they might seem at first sight. The people whose streets you’ll walk through, whose shops you visit, and whose houses you’ll photograph are well aware of the less privileged situation they find themselves in, and wish it were different. They are giving you the opportunity to take a peek into their community and show you what it’s like to live there.

Participate only if you are truly interested in learning something about a part of the city that doesn’t get featured in glossy magazines. If your intention is to merely go on an exciting adventure, show off, judge, or snap a picture of a poor little kid because it looks great on your Instagram account, then please just stick to cocktails and coconuts.

2. Pick the right tour company

It’s crucial to select the right tour company. Before you sign up, make sure you do your research. There’s lots of information (including reviews) online, but you can also ask around at your B&B or fellow travelers. Here’s what you should look for:

  • You want to make sure the local community benefits from the tour. Does the tour company employ people from the community? Do they invest in local community projects?
  • The tour company should treat the local community with respect, not like monkeys in a zoo. Is it allowed to take pictures of people? It’s better not to. How large will the tour group be? The smaller the better. Will there be a cultural performance? This can add to the ‘zoo’ element of the tour. Will kids be performing? If the tour takes place during school hours, the kids should be getting an education instead. Is it a walking tour? You want to avoid tours that pass through the area by bus or car.
  • A good tour guide is crucial. Some tour guides like to play around with the facts and throw in some stereotypes to make your experience more sensational. Make sure your guide is local, i.e. from the community you are visiting. A local will know the area, its people, its history, its culture and its people like the back of his/her hand, and will be best placed to give you an honest, yet nuanced account. A good guide talks about sensitive issues in a respectful manner, and can give you his/her own perspectives and experiences. Also look for information that indicates the tour guide is welcomed by the community. Do locals greet the tour guide? Does the guide shake hands and have chats with locals during the tour?

3. Behave and be respectful

You are visiting someone else’s community, so be respectful. Behave the way you’d want others to behave in yours.

Don’t make faces indicating disgust, superiority, or disdain. Don’t take pictures of people, or of the inside of their homes. If you do want to get someone on camera, ask their permission first. Don’t point your finger at people. Don’t laugh at people. Don’t be loud. Don’t spit in the streets. Don’t go wearing beach attire. Know how to greet the locals in their own language. Be friendly.

4. Buy something

Most tour companies will take you past local shops, including bakeries, shoe makers, markets, artists, jewelry makers, bars, etc. It’s much appreciated if you buy something, even if it’s something small, so that the community members see a direct benefit from the tours and so that you support the local economy. However, don’t just give money to locals, especially not to children.

5. Leave an honest review

After the tour, make sure leave a review online so that other travelers are better able to make an informed decision about which tour company to pick. You can also provide feedback or recommendations to your tour company directly, as well as to your B&B.

So, don’t be an asshole and sign up to the right tour. It will be eye-opening, increase your understanding of the world, and it will make your travels more real. Worst case you might actually learn something new.

This article was originally published on The White Rabbit, and is reprinted here with permission.

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