3 years ago

What’s the harm in poverty tourism?

Corner store in an impoversihed neighborhood in the Dominican Republic
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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?

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Dorothee - 3 years ago Reply

Good article! I never thought about it. I try always to take photographs without human beings and if it is not possible, have them only from the back or people, who agreed (for example to demonstrate how tall something is). I think poverty tourism is unacceptable. If one visit a place with poor people, none has the right to explore them. One can try getting to know them, because I think it is important to know the culture of the place. One should help best one can. Photographs, which are taken by their permission should anyway only be stored in the private album.

Rachelle - 3 years ago Reply

When my husband and I visited Jamaica for our honeymoon we took a tour into the city. Little did we know this tour would include a trip to see the “street pharmacists” homes (which were massive) and the “street patient” home, which were little more than shacks. We also visited a school right when it got out for the day, where we were bombarded by children begging for money and trying to reach into our purses and back packs. It made everyone uncomfortable and shows that sometimes the tour guides have their own agenda when it comes to poverty tourism. I would have never chosen to see that had I known.

    Gina - 3 years ago Reply

    @Rachelle Unfortunately, one of the negative impacts of poverty tourism is the conditioning of the locals especially children to beg for money and trinkets when a group of tourists are visiting those areas. I was very impressed with Fathom cruises as they asked passengers not to distribute toys, candy, etc or to give money to the folks in the Dominican Republic because they are trying to avoid exactly what you experienced which is harmful to all parties involved.

Crystal B - 3 years ago Reply

This was such a great! Definitely gives me something to think about next time I plan my next vacation too! I think this would be a great to teach our children for sure!

Amee - 3 years ago Reply

I believe if you do not create awareness you can’t solve a problem. Awareness of circumstance can be done without using the people in the images. I agree with your points and am hopefully that others will see the errors of their ways before publishing their posts.

Jen Reyneri - 3 years ago Reply

Great post, Gina. I think the Impact Guides did a good job asking travelers to be respectful, but it’s up to each to listen. I am grateful for our time in the DR, and cherish the friendships we made amongst the locals.

michelle elizondo - 3 years ago Reply

Thanks for enlightening me.

Helen Whaley - 3 years ago Reply

Well said! Poverty porn is the perfect description.

Nancy Burgess - 3 years ago Reply

Hard to believe that people actually do this.

michele soyer - 3 years ago Reply

this is an article that I shall share with family and friends.. I believe that no matter how hard one tries to vacation in poverty stricken countries the people always feel that stared at or felt sorry for..I believe that the only solution if you chose to vacation there is to be very careful about appearing condescending….I would have liked to be a part of the Peace Corp back in the 60’s to aid and help but family obligations denied me that…

Sophia,M.,McConnery - 3 years ago Reply

I would want to see these areas wherever I go.If I had money to travel that is!

tiffany dayton - 3 years ago Reply

It brings awareness to us. There is poverty everywhere, even in the US.

donna porter - 3 years ago Reply

This is such a great post. It gives me something to think about when planning our trips.

lisa - 3 years ago Reply

That’s awful! I wasn’t aware of this. It’s like treating people as if they were animals in a zoo. It makes me ill.

Tess Chalk - 3 years ago Reply

Interesting article…..thanks for all the information. I don’t think people should intrude on others, some people like to remain private whether on poverty levels or not.

Carolyn Massey - 3 years ago Reply

I have never heard of poverty tourism. After reading your post I am shocked people would take advantage of the poor and disregard their feelings.

lisa - 3 years ago Reply

I never even thought about this subject before reading this. Interesting.

Kyli Wolfson - 3 years ago Reply

Wow – I never knew this was going on. It honestly makes my stomach turn. It reminds me of people going to the zoo and taking photos of the animals there. These are people, and regardless of their financial situation, they shouldn’t be objectified or photographed without their permission. That’s despicable.

Judy - 3 years ago Reply

I think that povery tourism only is good if it impacts the person to turn around and do something helpful about what they have seen. Or if they can’t help the country they were at, that it would compel them to help someone somewhere else.

marthalynn - 3 years ago Reply

What an enlightening read! I had no idea this even existed. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and the history of this activity. I agree with you on every point!

lisa - 3 years ago Reply

All I can say is good for you. People are exploited enough as it is. I’m glad you chose not to add to it.

Cheryl Everitt - 3 years ago Reply

Very good insight. It helps all of us to see how the other side survives.

Renee S. - 3 years ago Reply

I had no idea poverty tourism even existed and I have no idea why anyone would want to even take part in it. Why would someone want to go look at another as if they were an exhibit in a zoo rather than use the money they were privileged to have to help build someone else who wasn’t so privileged, to help make their life better if they can? I don’t get it. I had heard of going to a resort in which there is poverty on the outskirts but this seems like something entirely different if I’m reading the article properly.

laurie damrose - 3 years ago Reply

It is very sad that people have the nerve to do this.

Jody Cleveland - 3 years ago Reply

This article was enlightening; thank you.

Melinda Berlin - 3 years ago Reply

Great article but you don’t have to travel outside he US borders to see poverty either. I spent almost a month in Hawaii 5 blocks from Waikiki beach & the homeless population is out of control. Literally, tourists stepping over people who were sleeping on the sidewalks right next to the stores of Gucci etc. It’s a worldwide epidemic and makes me thankful I live in a small rural community where we still help our own. I personally helped a senior female 2 yrs ago who was living out of her storage unit by first bringing her to my home for a hot shower then getting a hold of the necessary agencies to get her into affordable senior housing within a week. What dumbfounded me was our local sheriff’s department knew about her and did nothing but add her to their daily routine checks to make sure she was alright. If each one of us took a step forward to help another human being out, this world would be a better place.

Adriane - 3 years ago Reply

Wow, I had no idea there was such a thing as poverty tourism. Very unsettling.

gloria patterson - 3 years ago Reply

It hurts my heart to see it! Sad to say sometimes you cannot avoid seeing poverty when you visit places. Its not only places you travel sometimes it in your very own town.

katie - 3 years ago Reply

Voluntourism is a much more socially conscious trend!

Kim Benton - 3 years ago Reply

Poverty is sad & is everywhere ?

Rebecca Scolari - 3 years ago Reply

I had never heard of this before. One way of opening eyes and getting at least some help for those who need it

Shahreen - 3 years ago Reply

Completely agree with you, and it’s great that you’re sharing this message with those who don’t realize the harm in poverty tourism.

lisa - 3 years ago Reply

I really have nothing to do with it. I think it may be a problem. At the same time, it does bring in revenue. Like I said, I don’t participate or condone it. I also wouldn’t even write about it.

Anne Marie Carter - 3 years ago Reply

It’s a good place to visit if it is going to benefit the people who live at that location in some manner like bringing in money but, i don’t believe that pictures should be taken of how the people live.

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