Poverty tourism may sound like a trend, but it’s been around for nearly a century. Although it waned in popularity after World War II, it has begun a resurgence and is particularly popular with American and Western tourists. This article will aim to define and explain what this type of tourism is, how it works, and the arguments for and against it in today’s climate.

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Poverty tourism, also known as slum or ghetto tourism, is a type of urban travel undertaken by individuals from developed nations to observe poverty-stricken areas, mostly in underdeveloped or developing nations. This type of travel generally consists of guided tours around urban impoverished areas, such as the favelas in Brazil or segregated townships in South Africa. It is considered a so-called “first-world trend,” highlighting the fact that most individuals who undertake this type of travel are wealthy and have never been in areas of poverty. While it can be popular with certain populations, it is overall considered unethical and damaging to the communities involved, which rarely see any financial or humanitarian benefit from the tourism practice.

How it Works

This type of tour is rarely more than a few hours long. It is generally a day-long trip but may also be a half-day excursion. Tour companies provide transportation as well as security, enabling tourists to travel within a community with a modicum of safety. Tourists are then able to view the community, interact with residents if they speak the same language, and, in some cases, shop at some of the shops in the area. Tour prices vary depending on the country or city and may include additional fees for security and transportation; the average price for a day-long tour is around $2,500, which is usually more than a year’s salary for a working adult in that community. It is not recommended that tourists undertake this tourism itinerary without a company; solo excursions can be very dangerous.

The Lure

This type of tourism is nearly always undertaken by well-meaning, wealthy individuals and sometimes families. It is thought that by undergoing tours of impoverished areas far from home, these individuals will gain perspective on the reality of how poverty works. Many programs, many of which are run by a professional with a hospitality degree and have some measure of understanding of the socioeconomic and political climate of the places they feature, also offer the chance for people to engage in activism tourism; this is the part of the tour in which individuals help feed the homeless, pick up trash, or interact with the residents of the community. Many people who have participated in the tours have commented on the educational aspect of them; one participant that was mentioned in this National Geographic article stated that it was purely educational and a trip she would remember for the rest of her life.


However, while there may be benefits to the tourism practice, such as bringing to light injustice and living conditions of the area’s poorest residents, there is controversy. This article from Quartz highlights many of the criticisms of these tours. For example, the cost of such tours generally exceeds, or in many cases is double, the annual living wage for residents in the area. While many tour companies use portions of their profits to fund better schools and provide communal benefits to the community, many of them keep the money to themselves, meaning that residents of the community don’t make a lot of money, if any, from the tours. Another controversy is the fact that many individuals on these tours do not know the local customs and will take photos of residents without consent. One of the major controversies that must also be mentioned is the fact that the rise of poverty tours propels a rise in an aggressive police force, one that may do more harm than good to the communities they are providing security for tourists from.

Poverty tourism is undertaken by professionals who work in activism, who have a hospitality degree, or who want to help demystify poverty for wealthy individuals who may be changed by the experience for the better. It can be a life-changing experience when handled properly and has given rise to fierce activists working to eradicate poverty, improve education and healthcare in at-risk communities, and fundraising to build better communities. While it does have arguments on both sides of the issue, only individuals will be able to make up their mind as to whether embarking on a poverty tour will be beneficial both to them and the community they will be visiting.