Can We Put a Stop to Poverty Tourism?

Maisie Allen is a 2nd year Liberal Arts student majoring in English literature from South Wales. She likes socialism, the welsh rugby team, and gin.

[Featured Image: A group of white, Western tourists on a ‘poverty tour’ in a favela in Rio de Janeiro lead by a man in a white shirt with a Brazilian flag on it].

Whilst the name of ‘poverty tourism’ might appear fairly new, the activities surrounding it are definitely not. Usually defined as a tourist activity that involves visiting impoverished areas (sometimes under the guise of ‘giving back’), tourists (most likely from the West) seem to relish leaving city centres to tour makeshift shanty towns in a search for so-called authenticity. 

Whilst this is currently a fairly mainstream practice among tourists visiting developing countries in the Global South, the practice initially gained popularity in the 19th century, when wealthy British aristocrats would tour the East End of London in all of its then disrepute. National Geographic reported that this practice then spread to the United States, across the cities of New York and San Francisco, to view brothels and opium dens from a top down perspective. 

However, poverty tourism has recently not just been for commercial purposes under the semblance of charity in the hope that Westerners can ‘find themselves’, but recently visiting impoverished areas has become something of an academic practice. Recently, King’s College London’s own tabloid Roar News published a piece on the importance of getting students out of the lecture hall. The context of this was that a cohort of third year Politics students were taken to the area of Dagenham in East London as part of their ‘Extremism and Populism’ module. The premise was that Dagenham, like so many former British industrial heartlands has been struggling for several decades since Britain moved to a neoliberal status of post-industrialisation and as such is ripe to be exploited through extreme politicisation. I’m not saying that this is untrue, as someone from an area also struggling with post-industrialisation (although in my county’s case it is mining rather than car manufacturing) who has seen extremism take hold in a case that was particularly close to home there is an element of realism in these discussions and there is a place for them somewhere. 

However, the practice of this from King’s College London is something I’ve struggled to rationalise. The idea of university students, lots of whom will not be from working class backgrounds (approximately only 5% of KCL students studying for their first degree come from these so-called low-participation neighbourhoods), trawling around and observing a community that has been left behind by the champions of neoliberalism in government to find links with extremism is one I find deeply troubling. No effort was seemingly emphasised to exercise empathy and understanding, it just seemed to be nothing but a case study to be referenced in essays in the hope of achieving a first class grade. 

One thing that is seemingly forgotten amongst all forms of so-called poverty tourism, whether it is under the guise of academia or charity, is that these visitors get to leave and go back to an existence that is most likely more comfortable than what they have just witnessed. Discussing poverty and its social impact in university seminars, whilst a topic not to be ignored, is still not the same as actually living on the poverty line. Reading academic journals on the negative impact of post-industrialisation is still not the same as actually living in an area hit by these effects of high unemployment and austerity. Taking photographs of shanty towns and inner city slums to upload onto social media from your (most likely) safe accommodation is not the same as being handed such dire circumstances that you have no choice but to call those shanty towns your home. 

Whilst some may argue that by encouraging those who would not otherwise visit these areas can act as providing a visual cue to understanding their own wealth and geographical privilege primarily (as well as all that intersects with this), there are still other methods that can act as this social awakening. There is a danger that many of these tours, travelling around slum areas, also depoliticise poverty and the circumstances of their residents – instead presenting socioeconomic deprivation and financial hardship as ‘simple living’, which does nothing to benefit these impoverished communities. 

These acts feel nothing short of performativity, that by somehow if you are a privileged person and you visit an underprivileged community to see ‘how the other half live’, you somehow gain the moral high ground and it allows you to perform the role of a cultured traveller. Poverty is not culture. Poverty is not a tourist attraction. Poverty is not an academic case study. Poverty is not a performance and it is not a commodity to be explored through the lens of grotesque fascination under the guise of sympathetic persons wishing to feel less guilty about their own circumstances and should not be treated as such. Poverty is a political issue and neither tourism nor academic articles will address these social divides, so stop treating it as such. 

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