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.
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.
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.
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?
March 16, 2020 @ 10:03 am
This is a great read. I appreciate you sharing this with us!
March 16, 2020 @ 11:31 pm
haven’t heard of people doing it
March 21, 2020 @ 11:42 am
I had never heard of poverty tourism until I read your post. Thanks for educating me.
March 25, 2020 @ 3:11 am
Agreed. I lived in a developing country for a few years and saw a lot of people who went there just to taste the lifestyle. Sadly, they almost never realized the damage they did. Many would carry bags of candy with them and would toss it out the car window at the village kids as they drove by. It was horrible. They really thought they were helping the kids. When people went to the villages to really help, dig wells, build schools, the kids would bombard them waiting for candy and would be sullen and refuse to help when no candy came…
March 25, 2020 @ 4:50 am
Unfortunately, this points to a very sad problem. It’s good to know that this sort of thing does occur and can be avoided. Thanks for sharing!
March 26, 2020 @ 4:18 am
When poverty is objectified, I have to say that it is really deplorable.
March 27, 2020 @ 7:56 am
Unfortunately, this is everywhere. Great article! Thanks for sharing!
March 28, 2020 @ 8:12 am
This can’t be condoned and should definitely be stopped!
March 29, 2020 @ 6:59 am
I think poverty should never be exploited. Very sad!
March 30, 2020 @ 2:28 pm
Good article! Thanks for all the history. And thanks for sharing!
March 31, 2020 @ 12:44 pm
Great article! I don’t have any use for this kind of tourism. Thanks for sharing!
April 1, 2020 @ 8:51 pm
I agree when you are going to your travel destination you do go through impoverish area’s and I would never take a picture. What people have to realize is many of the people that work in your resort or hotel live in these areas.
April 2, 2020 @ 11:22 am
I hadn’t heard of this term before. My husband and I did honeymoon and do an anniversary trip to Jamaica. Although, we passed by very poor areas I also learned much about their lifestyle from our bus driver. He pointed out homes that were made of concrete and the first floor complete but the second floor just rebar sticking out. He said it would look like to us just a slum but in fact they save their money (no mortgages) and then buy a piece of land and put up the first floor of the home and stop when the money is gone. Then they save for 10-15 more years and finish the rest of the house. I thought how very financially smart where we buy home and mortgage most of it they own it outright from the beginning.
April 3, 2020 @ 2:59 am
I can’t have very much tolerance for this sort of thing! Thanks for sharing!
April 4, 2020 @ 1:54 pm
I would hope people when they visit places would help people. When we were in Jamaica we bought hand made crafts from people and tipped well.
April 4, 2020 @ 3:12 pm
This is really very sad. Something should be done to stop this.
April 4, 2020 @ 6:29 pm
This is a very detailed and informative post thank you for posting this
April 5, 2020 @ 1:08 pm
I do know that some of these place rely on tourism dollars to survive. I think you have to make good decisions about what’s appropriate.
April 5, 2020 @ 3:59 pm
Poverty tourism is very sad. I agree!
April 6, 2020 @ 10:58 am
Really agree with you! I think this practice should be stopped.
April 6, 2020 @ 9:57 pm
I think vacationers should stop to think about their actions if they travel to low income destinations. They should try to help rather than exploit.
April 7, 2020 @ 1:29 pm
Many of theses places relay on tourism dollars to support their families. It’s really about how you treat them. The last time we visited Jamaica there was no tipping in the resort but they could accept gifts. We brought lotions and soaps to leave for the housekeepers. We also left a bundle of medicines on our last day. Medication, even aspirin, is very expensive so we left them for our housekeepers.
April 8, 2020 @ 11:51 am
I sure hope their aren’t people who tour purposely for this. I hope if they are in these places that it’s just an error of judgment.
April 8, 2020 @ 6:09 pm
When poverty is objectified, I have to say that it is really deplorable.
April 8, 2020 @ 8:41 pm
This is really very sad! Socially unsettling!
April 9, 2020 @ 3:39 pm
On our honeymoon in Jamaica many years ago, we befriended one of the social directors at our resort. She was such an awesome young woman. She talked about how tourism jobs made a huge difference for families. We did get a tour of the city and got an up close view of the extreme poverty. It really touched me how much I have in comparison.
April 10, 2020 @ 7:58 pm
It’s so sad to think people would purposely so this type of thing. Or even if they think it’s ok to do this – it’s not ok.
April 11, 2020 @ 7:02 pm
In Jamaica, on our honeymoon we did a car tour to a shopping area. Our driver, George, drove an old 50s style car and was so interesting and fun. It was such a pleasure we did ask to take a photo with him to never forget him.
April 12, 2020 @ 4:28 pm
I’ve never heard the term poverty tourism and never knew people were doing this. Thank you for the information and I have to agree, it is a disgusting way to treat human beings.
April 12, 2020 @ 9:39 pm
The article lists Detroit as one of the locations. I have seen photos of the old abandoned homes in the Detroit area. It’s just so sad how many there are.
April 13, 2020 @ 11:28 am
My boss has a friend that visited Mexico to do some mission work and it changes his life. He started a nonprofit that builds and fills libraries in small Mexican towns.
April 13, 2020 @ 11:51 am
This is something new for me have never heard about it before. Have never been out of the states. So sad
April 14, 2020 @ 5:03 pm
it makes me sad looking at these pictures…………….. because what is it going to be like in a few months after all of this lockdown
April 15, 2020 @ 10:25 am
I hope someone will be able to help now and down the road. Because I think it will be a long time before people are traveling again
April 15, 2020 @ 4:42 pm
This is truly sad! people should really try to help!
April 15, 2020 @ 10:03 pm
I have Never Heard of Poverty Tourism before! Pretty much an eye opener! Although I hardly ever leave my house, let alone go on the other side of my town, its crazy how different areas are so different. never would have thought that that would be a thing!
April 15, 2020 @ 10:23 pm
I can’t believe that people actually do this
April 15, 2020 @ 11:40 pm
I’ve never heard the phrase poverty tourism before. I agree that it could exploit them.
February 17, 2022 @ 11:28 am
The last thing in the world I want is to see a bunch of squalor and filth and poverty when I’m on vacation. What the heck is wrong with people. This is why I don’t to to the Caribbean anymore. Sure the all-inclusive resorts are nice but you have to drive by and through these horrible dirty shanty towns. I don’t know why anybody would do that on purpose.