This week I came across an article highlighting the growing trend of poverty tours. The writer described a developing avenue of the tourism industry in which travelers connect with a local tour company that takes them around a slum for a few hours to show them what poverty looks like in the developing world. I believe this concept raises some important ethical considerations for travelers.

Are “poverty tours” ethical? Can they really help the community, or are they merely exploiting vulnerable people?

The thought of a group of tourists descending upon a poverty-ridden area in their 15-passenger van, wearing designer clothes, with cameras dangling from their necks really unsettles me. I am reluctant because I believe such a tour puts people living in poverty on display and invades their lives. What would I think if someone drove up and down my suburban American street snapping photos of me and staring in utter amazement as I take out the garbage or wash my car? It seems absurd. What kind of message does this send to people experiencing poverty? I should think I might feel rather humiliated.

But am I hypocritical? Don’t these “poverty tourists” have good intentions — to learn, to be challenged, to make a difference? Do I not do the same thing when I travel? After all, I want to see how people really live. So I snap photos, albeit discretely, so that I can show people at home what poverty looks like in the developing world … right? 

To be honest, I actually enjoy leaving this American life of excess and going to a place where I can experience (at least on some level) what two-thirds of the planet lives like every day. It just feels so real and uncensored. My visits to garbage cities in Egypt, rural communities in Peru, and impoverished villages in Uganda are the travel experiences that produced the greatest change in me.

So why then do I hesitate to support an avenue of the tourism industry that helps facilitate similar experiences for other travelers?

I think the reason is because the tours in question do not actually create those same experiences for travelers. I was able to visit these places because I spent time volunteering there, helping to empower impoverished communities rather than simply tour them; I formed relationships with the community residents rather than just driving by them. Poverty tours leave out the key elements of engagement, contribution, and exchange.

I’m not here to pass judgement on anyone who has signed up for or taken one of these so-called “poverty tours.” Actually, the fact that you have done so or have considered doing so is admirable because I truly believe your intentions were altruistic. You also were willing to put yourself in an uncomfortable, perhaps even dangerous situation, which is something not every traveler will do.

Nonetheless, my concern persists. I fear poverty tours will not really lead to change, and that they could actually do more harm than good to the community, as well as to the traveler. We have a responsibility as citizens of the world to ensure we make ethical choices when we travel. This does not mean we should never visit a slum, but it does mean we should carefully consider the most responsible means of doing so.

If you are considering a trip that brings you face to face with extreme poverty, or specifically a “poverty tour,” here are some questions to consider before making your decision:

1.) Does the money I spend on the tour go toward helping this community?

Is someone from the community serving as the tour guide? Are the profits from the tours reinvested into education, healthcare, or economic development of the community? Do thorough research. Ask detailed questions of your tour company. Find out how they are using the money, and if it is not reinvested in the community, thoughtfully consider whether or not your touring the community will really have a positive impact on the people who live there.

 

The crowded streets of Kampala, Uganda

The crowded streets of Kampala, Uganda


2.) What are my motivations for taking such a tour?

Do you want to see poverty and develop a better understanding of it? Do you seek an understanding of poverty that will inspire you to action? Or do you simply want to teach your child why he should not waste his food? People experiencing poverty are not tourist attractions. They are not there to be gawked at or marveled over any more than you and I are.  Be discrete, and make sure your motives involve a desire to take action.

Volunteering in La Romana, Dominican Republic

Volunteering in La Romana, Dominican Republic


3.) Would I take such a tour in my own community if given the opportunity?

This is a tough one. How many of us would take a poverty tour in a foreign country but not in our own? How many of us will volunteer for a few weeks to help orphans in Uganda, but are slow to jump at the chance to care for the poor in our own community? We wouldn’t be caught dead going into such and such part of town. We think we’ll be shot. Our car will be stolen. And besides, it’s just not as glamorous to spend a weekend at a local soup kitchen as it is to travel overseas. We are less afraid to venture into one of the most notorious slums in Africa than we are to drive our locked car into America’s inner-cities? Sadly, I am guilty of all of these thoughts myself. Before you take a tour of a community halfway across the world, take an afternoon and spend some time getting to know your own. None of us is as far removed from poverty as we would like to think.

Lake Titicaca Home-stay in Peru

Posing with the women of our host family on Lake Titicaca’s Isla Taquile in Peru.


4.) Is there another way I can develop an understanding of extreme poverty that instead encourages community engagement?


Instead of touring poverty or seeing poverty – engage with the people who live it. These relationships are what leads to positive and lasting change. We’re big advocates of relational travel, but we recognize this is not easy. It takes time and effort. We suggest a few options to make it easier:

1.) Volunteer. We have both volunteered on service trips with our church and other faith-based organizations. These opportunities have taken us into some of the most impoverished communities in Egypt, Uganda, and the Dominican Republic, as well as Orlando, Hartford, New York, and Washington, D.C. in the United States. These trips have ranged anywhere from one day to one week to one month.

2.) Try a home-stay. If volunteering is not your style, then perhaps a local home-stay option is appropriate for you. You can stay for as little or as long as you like, and they are available most anywhere in the world. We spent the night with a family on the Isla Taquile at Lake Titicaca in Peru. We learned a lot about their lifestyle and traditions, played with the kids, ate some delicious home-made food, and learned about their community.

 

A man begs on the streets of Cusco, Peru

A man begs on the streets of Cusco, Peru


5.) Am I prepared to respond to what I will see?

What will you do with the knowledge you acquire on this “poverty tour?” Will you live any differently? Will you give to charities? If so, which ones? Will you educate your friends and family? Will your newly acquired knowledge impact your habits as a consumer and/or traveler? However you choose to take action, you have a responsibility to do something with this knowledge.

One reason people are turned off by poverty, or are afraid of it, is because they really have no clue what to do about it. That depresses them and overwhelms them, so they’d rather stick to the more pleasant places to travel. After all, it is a vacation, right? I don’t blame them. Taking action is not easy. But it’s important. Your tour company or guide should provide you with a few simple action steps as to how you can apply your knowledge of poverty, deepen your understanding, and impact change. If they don’t, research it independently, or, contact us. We would love to share our thoughts with you.

Have you ever taken a “poverty tour?”  Do you think they are ethical?

Have you volunteered abroad? What are your thoughts on how travelers can have a positive impact on global poverty reduction?