What’s the harm in poverty tourism?

Last week I sailed aboard the Fathom Cruise Ship Adonia to the Dominican Republic. I have so many stories and photos to share about our week spent on the ship, exploring the Dominican Republic, and participating in impact activities. What you are not going to see in any of my posts are pictures of the impoverished people of the Dominican Republic. You see I discovered something about myself, I am passionate about avoiding poverty tourism. I want to spread awareness about traveling with a purpose. I want to find ways to respectfully help others that will leave their dignity intact.

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing

What is poverty tourism?

By definition, poverty tourism is a type of tourism that involves financially privileged tourists visiting impoverished communities for the purpose of witnessing poverty firsthand. It is also know as ghetto or slum tourism, poorism, and reality tourism. I would expand upon that definition to include tourism to impoverished areas that may not be intentionally for the purpose of seeing poverty first hand but once visiting these areas tourists find themselves “sightseeing” and  taking pictures without permission resulting in the exploitation of the poor and stealing the dignity of the impoverished. These vacation images can be referred to as poverty porn especially as the tourists return home to share the sad pictures of people at their worst starving, dirty, and possibly ill.

Corner store in an impoversihed neighborhood in the Dominican Republic

What is the harm in poverty tourism?

So I have nearly completely answered this question in my expanded definition of poverty tourism. As voyeurs of the unfortunate and less fortunate who are struggling to survive in the depths of poverty and horrific conditions we are exploiting these folks. We are stealing their dignity and destroying any sense of pride they may have left. We might as well put them in cages and sell tickets.

The roots of poverty tourism

Poverty tourism became increasingly popular in the 1980’s.  This is in part because black South Africans invited white tourists to come tour the  segregated townships as a way to educate white citizens about the apartheid way of life in South Africa.  It continued after apartheid fell and served to show the world that things were still not fixed. Poverty tourism also has roots in Great Britain where it became a social sightseeing activity to visit the slums and witness the poverty. Today popular destinations for poverty tourism include South Africa, India, Brazil, Kenya, Indonesia, and also Detroit.

What is the purpose of poverty tourism?

Some will argue that poverty tourism helps the economy. Poverty tourism creates jobs. Poverty tourism shines a light on poverty so  that the governments can’t deny the levels of poverty or hide it. I guess I can see the value of the awareness brought about by slum tourism. I guess it is better to see it for yourself first hand then to lazily relax at your resort a few miles away oblivious to the suffering of the areas poorest people. But is the state of ignorance any better than having seen the poverty firsthand and then returning to your everyday life having done nothing to initiate change.

Is it all bad?

As you can guess I am not 100% certain that poverty tourism is all bad. I will say that personally I do think it is wrong. I think it is wrong to treat people as animals to be seen and photographed. I think it is wrong to seek poverty tourism as a form of entertainment or to occupy your time. I think it is wrong to stand outside the fire and watch people burn. If your only intent in visiting impoverished communities is to witness the poverty firsthand, you are making the problem worse. If you experience the poverty firsthand and return to your life inspired and committed to making a difference to become the change then you are making a real impact. Your experience will have real value and meaning.

An unnamed beach in the Dominican Republic


Poverty Tourism and the Fathom Travel Deep Impact Initiative

It is my prayer and my hope that future tourists visiting the Dominican Republic as part of the Fathom Impact Travel Experience do not treat their activities as opportunities to exploit the Dominicans. I hope they remain respectful by not capturing pictures without permission. I hope they don’t spend their time just observing the poor. I hope they spend their time genuinely helping and interacting with Dominicans as individuals both honoring their dignity and showing them the respect they deserve.  Unfortunately, despite training and encouragement from our impact guides on ways to act with empathy, I saw individuals engaging in poverty tourism  on our first impact activity. We delivered water filters to families in a local community. My fellow travelers were eagerly taking pictures and filming video of the families and their homes without permission. Think about how you would feel if someone came up to your house while you were sitting on your front porch and started taking pictures of you. Agreeing to accept aid, the aid you desperately need to improve the health and living conditions of your family,  should not be perceived as an open invitation for the giver to exploit your situation and inflate their own spirit of altruism.

How do you feel about poverty tourism?

It is one thing if you happen to interact with impoverished people and areas during the natural course of your travel. If you show all people respect and honor their dignity.  It is an entirely different beast altogether to seek out the poor so you can bring home a souvenir photograph and exercise your pity muscles. How do you feel about poverty tourism? Do you see poverty tourism as a learning experience or simply as  exploitative gawking?