Question: Is Poverty Tourism OK?

Bangkok, Thailand

I touched on this issue briefly when I discussed my travel guilt after leaving Laos. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue and have read a couple of additional blog posts that have influenced my thinking.

The first was a blog post I highlighted in my picks of the week by Mina Sameh entitled “No, Not Everyone Can Travel – A Bubble Burster” in which he explains the difficulty involved with traveling the world from a perspective outside of the Western world. Even though Mina does well in Egypt and is educated, the money and the opportunities just aren’t there. This post placed some things in perspective. It showed me how incredibly lucky I am, even if I never were to leave the United States. Our standard of living is high, my partner and I are both well educated and we have access to whatever we want or need. Add to that we can go almost anywhere in the world whenever we want (well, given the budget) and you have some very pampered people. It showed me that I have no idea what most of the world goes through which made me ask the question how can I properly interpret it then when I see it first hand.

Woman in Laos

Walking around poor, very poor, areas of Laos I can talk with the people, I can take some pictures and share some statistics, but none of that really means much because I can’t relate. Not in any way. Which brings me to the second post I promised.

The post, Garbage City: The Side of Cairo No One Wants to See, written by a colleague Norbert who, while traveling in Cairo, decided to visit one of the worst slums in the city. Now Cairo isn’t exactly known for hiding its poverty, so I was surprised when I read that he had traveled to and heavily photographed the area. As he states in the piece his intention was to highlight the poverty, something I found (and find) odd. How can travelers to Cairo not know about the poverty? No, I think it’s something different, I think it’s poverty tourism.

I don’t fault Norbert for this and I certainly mean him no offense, I’ve done it as well and I’m sure neither of us realized what we were doing. I’ve traveled to poor areas around the planet, taken the requisite photos and left. But why, why did I feel the need to catalog them?

Village home in Laos

I think that a large part of it, at least from a Western perspective, is our inability to relate to the extreme poor. Sure, some of us may have less money than others, but if you live in the United States you are doing better than most people around the world. Same goes with France, Germany, England, etc. So when confronted with a village where they make a few dollars a month and live on the edge of life and death, I don’t think we know how to cope with it and instead turn into poverty tourists. I think it’s a coping mechanism or at the very least a way for our brains to begin the process of understanding what lies before us.

Is it right, is it wrong? I don’t know. I ultimately don’t think it’s a bad thing, it makes us better global citizens and as such maybe we’ll be more globally conscious in what we say and do. Maybe it means we’ll start looking at the tags on our shirts to see where they were made and maybe it means actively working to help impoverished communities around the world. That’s why I don’t fault Norbert or myself for our bouts of poverty tourism, I think it’s just part of a larger process of self-enrichment and that by sharing it with others, maybe a little good will have been done.

What do you think, is there such a thing as poverty tourism? Is it right or wrong to be a voyeur in some of the poorest regions of the world?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

24 thoughts on “Question: Is Poverty Tourism OK?”

  1. If a person living in the slum ever asks you to leave, or to not take pictures, then its best to follow their wishes. But I feel most wouldn’t mind, and would welcome the chance for increased exposure as a means to an increase in livelihood.

  2. Great post Matt.

    I don’t think there’s a right answer to your question here, there is not a correct way to think about it, all you have to consider when visiting those places is people’s feelings. As long as the visitor remembers that those are not objects or actors in a play, and that they might feel bad, jealous, or even sorry for themselves then it’s fine to visit and even take photographs unless told not to.

    I believe that to many Westerners just seeing places like these is an experience in itself…and trust even in Egypt, to many Egyptians seeing places like these wows them and they don’t even believe there are people that have such living conditions.

    Egyptian young photographers usually take their cameras and go to places like these for photo sessions, post their pictures on facebook and get the most likes and “oh where did you take that? is this really in Egypt?”…I have nothing against exposing these people, on contrary, I believe that when the world knows that there are people living like this then someone might try to do something.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is to be compassionate when visiting such places…and the “wise spender” doesn’t have to show up with you :D I had to bring this up because many people just spend unwisely as long as the place looks fancy, but going to a cheap cafe in an under developed area and a cup of tea costs a couple of pennies more, they let their spending wise-ness take over and decide not to spend money in that place :D

  3. It is certainly a tricky issue – I know I’ve done it before too. I think the most important thing to remember whether you’re just stopping in for a quick visit and a few pictures or staying in an impoverished community for a longer amount of time, is to remain respectful to its inhabitants.

  4. I agree with other commenters. Just be respectful. Most people don’t care, but the only way to know is to ask.

    If they were given a camera and dropped off in your country, they’d be doing the same thing as you (taking photos of a new & interesting place to share with people back home).

    While traveling in the Darien Gap, I was hitchhiking in the back of a truck along with a poor local farmer. After I asked if I could take his portrait, he surprised me by whipping out his own little camera and taking a photo of me to show his family. The government gave him the camera to help them document changes in the area. Don’t feel guilty for acting on human nature. :)

  5. Marianne at BestTravelDealsTips

    Matt, I first encountered this issue on a trip to the Bahamas. I decided I wanted to tour Nassau so a friend of mine and I rented a car for the day and drove around. At one point we wandered on to the “wrong side of the rail road tracks” so to speak. I was struck that on the other side of the island away from the nice hotels that people were living in shacks. I felt so guilty (as you did) and was depressed at the thought of it. Not that I live in a “bubble” in the U.S. but it made me really appreciate all that I do have and why the world thinks Americans are “rich.” Compared to so many, even our poor are better off. I opened up conversations with others and one way not be “a guilty tourist” is understand that their local economy depends on your tourism dollars so think about how you can be a blessing to an area trying to survive. When people don’t travel there, they can’t eat. It’s a gift to be able to travel and seeing the world will fill you with gratitude. I always love your honest, sensitive and thought provoking blog posts that are straight from your heart.

    1. Thank you Marianne, I really appreciate the kind words and you’re right, tourism dollars are very important. That’s another reason to research and patronize locally owned businesses whenever possible.

  6. I think there is that aspect of taking photos because it’s not not something we are used to or know how to deal with. However, I think there is another aspect as well. Maybe the photos are taken to remind us how lucky we are or how much that people are in need so that when we get home we don’t forget them. Maybe our conscious is telling us to visit those areas because we should do something about it. Even if it was nothing more than what Norbert did, that at least raises awareness. And any change has to start there – knowing that it exists.

    It’s one thing to read about it. It’s another to actually see the photos and see what life is really like. I admit that I don’t take the best photos but maybe focusing on these areas (and not so much as tourists but as human beings) makes the saying true – a picture is worth a 1000 words.

  7. Matt the poverty in the developing nations in SEA is hard to take at times isn’t it? But I know you could travel to parts of your city and be just as overwhelmed because it’s all relative. I believe by traveling to these developing countries those of us with much more material wealth can in small ways help those economies. That sounds imperialistic and smells of noblesse oblige, doesn’t it? To quiet my guilt when I went to SEA we took art supplies to an orphanage near our hotel, we let the temple kids “rip us off” a few bucks every day with their overpriced scarfs and baubles. Find an NGO in Loas that works in areas you are interested in and give money and time. My hot button is sex tourism and I’m looking for legit organizations to work with. You’re a thoughtful and good guy to even ask these questions

  8. There is something like this “poverty tourism” in Jakarta, Indonesia.
    The travel agent does say that this kind of tourism is now quite popular among western tourists. It does give some kind of enlightenment to them, knowing that there are “another sides of the world”.

  9. Poverty is something you read about and rarely see when living in a G20 nation. We think we know, but we don’t. I thought i knew poverty as I grew up in then poor and communist Poland…but I didn’t. Poverty tourism almost gets a negative connotation in this piece but regardless of the angle it needs to be shown. Especially for places that are top tourist destinations, visitors need to be enlightened that poverty is a reality in 80% of the world. We travelled and seen many countries on our rtw trip and feel somewhat enlightened…Much work needs to be done and I don’t mind travellers using their clout to press the issue even if only to push their agenda. Like you said, someone’s post brought you there and made you think…about the morality of it all.

  10. Very interesting article and valid point made. Though I don’t believe that poverty tourism simply for the enriching of oneself and creating an awareness amongst others is enough. Seeing so many people in need from different regions must spark a feeling of humanity in us, We can’t observe these situations and simply talk about them with our circle of friends; it’s just not enough. We are fortunate to have what we have but we are even more fortuante to have the means of helping others. Ultimately our goal must be to proactively help these communities.

  11. Very interesting question. I think you can gather from people’s behaviour if they are happy to be part of a tourism or not. If you are not and you want to take a photo, enter their house or whatever just ask. People are usually very happy if you properly engage with them rather than just treating them as an object for a good photo. And if it is helping the local community and offers a chance out of poverty then this is a good thing.

    However when it involves children I think they should absolutely not be part of tourism. I work in the international development sector in Cambodia and see many children who get exploited by their parents or greedy pimps just make a few bucks. If children are trying to sell you something it is most likely not going into their own pockets. They are up very late at night, dehydrated and almost certainly not going to school. In fact there are even tours to orphanages. A lot of the children are not orphans at all actually, but their parents get a small commission from the money the orphanages make from tourist who got convinced their visit helps children. It doesn’t and children shouldn’t be tourist attractions in my opinion.

  12. I live in Mumbai, India which is home to the supposedly biggest slum in Asia, in the locality called Dharavi.The concept of “slum tourism” is becoming highly popular here. A lot of local groups host tours to these slums, and these tours are quite popular among the westerners who visit Mumbai.
    For anyone living in this city, the slums are part of the daily problem in our lives, from creating traffic jams to bigger, socially more impactful problems. So the first time I read about slum tourism, it sounded extremely derogatory, raising questions of why would someone want to go and see such a depraved lifestyle.
    Reading this post and the comments following it, I can understand that the intentions of the tourists might be all well and noble too. But the fact remains, that the slums have been existent for decades and have only increased with each year with the living conditions only getting worse in there. There is a lot of politics and economics behind the very existence of these areas. These areas are sometimes nurtured to remain so, for political mileage and economic aid. And I am certain that must be the case with any poor locality anywhere in the world.
    I think, its important that the tourists get a deeper understanding of what goes behind the scenes in the existence of such conditions, anywhere in the world. While its extremely essential to be respectful of the people and try and help them through a NGO etc, one must also try to get a holistic picture before visiting these areas, I feel.

  13. I have two points on this poverty travel question:
    1. The answer to whether it’s right or wrong depends on the traveler’s motives, and
    2. Pride is essential to the human spirit and pity is fatal to a person’s pride.

    I’ve read quite a few travel blogs that no-so-subtly point out the differences between the haves and have-nots, and I get particularly annoyed with travelers who take photos of and write posts about how wonderful they are because they’re helping folks less fortunate than them. If travelers really have good motives behind visiting places of poverty, either to volunteer, or bring awareness to help spur social change, or to learn about another culture so they can become a better world citizen, I don’t see a problem with it, but it requires the traveler to take him/herself out of the center focus, stay out of the story, be behind the lens, and refrain from using “I” statements.

    But even with truly selfless motives, there’s still the issue of pitying someone for the environment in which they live. If a tourist is doing a walking tour of a slum, looking at it as as person would a fishbowl, I don’t see how anything put pity could ensue from that experience. Even in an environment where a person appears to have little, they may still have pride. Take that away with pity, and what’s left?

  14. Nothing wrong with poverty tourism;
    you get to see different and totally new culture.
    You enrich your knowledge.
    You get to see different perspective and way of living on this plant.
    and dont forget that by travelling to poor country you’re also giving them money (in indirect way).
    Also by travelling to a poor country you really will get to understand a lot of things in this life and if your stay is longer than just short visit then you get to find many answers for this life,,,

  15. I felt bad driving around New Orleans last year in some of the areas still not rebuilt after Katrina. My friend decided to go that way on our way back from a Plantation tour, it was not planned. But I think it is good when you are in Nassau and you take a tour of some sort you see the other side of the island, especially for preteens and teenagers to see how lucky they are to live in America, hopefully. Insightful article~

  16. How can we truly learn about places and people different than us if we don’t go to see them? Poor cultures won’t be coming to visit Chicago or Boston or anywhere a plane flight away. Ethics are only an issue if by visiting you exploit or abuse which is unlikely to happen if the intent is to learning experience. Kudos for you on reporting what you see – by sharing you bring even more people into the opportunity to get some perspective.

  17. Great post.

    I personally never feel guilty travelling to poorer countries. I sometimes feel a little envy, many people in poorer countries from my experience seem happy and the emphasis that is put on community and family friends is something many richer countries have lost. Time spent communicating with people who have less than yourself is time well spent,staring at a less fortunate society from a distance will lead to negative feelings.

    I spent last year in india and although the majority of people have very little there is a spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurialism i have not seen in any other country. I am currently a Volunteer teacher in rural china educating the poor minority kids. they have little, but have pride. .essentially they are like teenagers anywhere else on the planet it all about the haircut and the mobile phone, we are quick to find differences between cultures when really we should be looking for similarities and shared truths.

Comments are closed.

I help you experience the best the world has to offer!

Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.