At what point does Slum Tourism become a product of disneyfication?

Jan 12, 2017 by Jessica Rodríguez and Hanan Yousef

‘Slum tourism’ is a practice originated for the slumming, understood as a practice of the upper and middle classes in the slums or neighborhoods of London at the end of the 19th century (Steinbrink & Pott, 2010 quoted in Meschkank, 2011). Nowadays, it is an activity that moves a growing number of tourists who are no longer interested in visiting places like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty (Melik, 2012). This is how slum tourism is presented as the opportunity to take the tourist beyond “relaxation and recovery” to find landscapes that reflect the day-to-day situation of millions of people in slums located in big cities like Mumbai in India and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil (Hutnyk, 1996, quoted in Dyson, 2011; Melik, 2012).


This activity has been subject of controversy, Rachid Amirou explains the reality of slum tourism, concept understood as the consequence of the verification of the economical domination that arises from the novelty of authentic populations. The author acknowledges that tourism has become a phenomenon of social distance (Tual, 2010). Likewise, some people talk about the negative impact on the receiving populations.

Misery and poverty, terms understood as the lack of what is necessary for the sustenance of life (Boltvinik 1999, quoted in: Aguilar, Benítez & Tafolla, 2006) become a spectacle and obscene fun which may affect the dignity of people given the analogy with an animal zoo, where novelty becomes an opportunity to take photographs: “slum tourism is a one-way street: they take photos, we lose some dignity” (Sputnik World, 2014, paragraph 4). Others argue that revenue stays on tour operators and not on residents. Rogerson (2994) identifies a lack of education in the residents as well as the lack of participation of them in the “flourishing” business (Frenzel, 2013).

However, slum tourism also represents a development strategy since the economic benefit has been evident, generating in a neighborhood such as Dharavi, in India, around one million dollars a year (Frenzel, 2013). An investigation carried out by Bianca Freire- Medeiros in a Favela called Rocinha, shows that, despite the rejection of this practice by the middle class and some individual opinions, 83% of the residents perceive tourism in a positive way and approve their development, as long as it is held to conditions that prevent the denigration of their dignity (Sputnik Mundo, 2014). In addition to this, the agencies base their commercial activity on the generation of awareness of the existence of these territories that lead to the disappearance of the conditions of the same, and consequently, that eradicate their underprivileged situation. For this reason, they claim that 80% of incomes return to the population in order to create new opportunities for residents (Baran, 2008).

The tourists affirm that their interest in realizing this tourist typology is related to the confrontation of the reality and the search of the non-traditional touristic destinations (Baran, 2008). Some opinions relate slum tourism to the transformation of local life, due to the development of new opportunities for the host populations that also can lead to the abandon of their traditional activities to focus on tourism (Tual, 2010).

Furthermore, the practice is considered as a form of communication that reflect the reality of the slums and thus, the change of pre-established perceptions about poverty in tourists, because they affirm that these experiences contribute to their learning (Frenzel, 2013). Consequently, the semantic perception of a neighborhood like Dharavi changes because tourists no longer see it as a place that harbor “real poverty” giving more importance to other values there. According to Crossley (2012), there are three psychological effects on tourists: firstly, they seek to contribute to these communities through volunteering; secondly, they begin to see poverty in a “beautiful”, attractive and exotic way, and finally, they find in “poor” life a more authentic and happy way of living that fills their lives more than their past and conventional lives (Frenzel, 2013).

In this way, according to Dovey and King (2012) this type of tourism becomes the new post-colonial fantasy of the western tourist, and that is why nowadays, we can find hotels that offer, in some way, the experience of living “poor”. An example of this is the Boutique Shanty Town in South Africa that despite recreating a slum stage has air conditioning and Wi-Fi to not distance their guests from their comfort, idea that can be found contradictory but logical taking into account the business core of a hotel.

From the above, it is important to question the responsibility of tourism providers in the presentation of poverty in a romantic and fetishistic way, serving certain guidelines for the interests of the tourist in order to increase the number of visits (Frenzel, 2013). Therefore, characteristics of the disneyfication phenomenon are identified, concept understood as the process where the principles of the theme park dominate in more sectors of the society, these principles embody the simplification of the culture of places for the easy consumption of visitors. These aspects not only affect the reality of the destinations and the inhabitants there, but also the perception of a tourist who does not know what part of their experience was real or recreated. This phenomenon has immersed itself in American societies and in different parts of the world, giving rise to consumption and arterialization (Córdoba and Ordóñez, 2009).

The ambition of the operating agencies, the desire for new tourism by some people, the conformism of the resident populations and the economic income to the place can lead to the theatralization of the poverty by the companies, constructing an imaginary in the territories that, many times, may not correspond to the reality, making a romantic and attractive view of a social condition that affects negatively millions of people in the world. Likewise, the community would reform its socioeconomic structures to immerse itself in a “poverty” recreated for the satisfaction of the tourist. While this activity affects the dignity of some people, and transform the socio-economical structure, it can also be a tool for the participation of tourists in voluntary actions that are beneficial to the community.  Therefore, it is all on the way of planning this activity, taking into account the characteristics of the place, the will of the inhabitants to participate and the previous awareness given to the visitors, because it is about a new and sustainable activity that aims to the learning and improvement of the lives of populations in the slums.


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