Can "Poverty Tourism" Help Rebuild Communities? Or Is It Just Cashing In On the Misery of the Poor?
"Save a life, create jobs and rebuild communities." Three reasons to travel you can't say no to.
That's the pitch of Los Angeles's newest tourist attraction: LA Gang Tours. And it's a pitch that seems to be working. Even before the company opened for business earlier this month, tickets had already sold out.
Eager tourists clamored to get "a true first-hand encounter of the history and origin of high profile gang areas and the top crime scene locations in South Central, Los Angeles." Not even the legal waivers participants were required to sign, exempting the company from liability for "death, injury, and property damage," halted sightseers wanting a glimpse at "sites like the LA County Jail, Skid Row, home to 90,000 homeless people, and the birthplace of the Black Panther Party."
Being an operation interested in showcasing both the sites and the communities who live there, the aspirations of LA Gang Tours were perhaps always laudable. The LA it seeks to show tourists is not just the playground where the world's movie stars, media magnates and Fortune 500 executives make their homes. Outside the Platinum Triangle, the tour reminds the city's visitors, LA is a global epicenter of violence and squalor. It's notorious for urban decay, social divisions and economic inequality. And yet, amidst the violence and squalor, there is a thriving diversity, ingenuity and camaraderie unique to these ghetto communities.
As Alfred Lomas, former Florencia gangster and the founder of LA Gang Tours, said in a recent Los Angeles Times article: "[South Central] is ground zero for a lot of bad in this city. It could be ground zero for a lot of the good too".
For Lomas, the goal of the tour is to funnel the profits it makes back into the local community. Jobs for residents, funds for economic developments, business training schemes, micro-financing plans and improved education are all initiatives which LA Gang Tours hopes to spearhead in the coming years. "This," as he believes, "is true community empowerment." And as for the people who've "stereotyped us," Lomas remains optimistic that they will learn to uncover the human face behind LA's abject poverty and senseless violence.
Poverty tourism (or "poorism") ventures like LA Gang Tours now cater to a worldwide niche market that's on the increase. Tours of Rio's favelas, the Johannesburg township of Soweto, the vast slums of India's metropolises, and the crumbling battlefields in Eastern Europe, South-East Asia and Africa rank among the most popular destinations on travel itineraries today.
Still, for as long as poorism has existed it has never failed to attract its share of criticisms. In his widely acclaimed 2007 Smithsonian Magazine article on poorism in Mumbai, for instance, John Lancaster notes how such tour operators are frequently branded as sleazy voyeurs, quick to cash in on the misery of the poor. An Indian tourism official he cites even labels these tour operators as "parasites [who] need to be investigated and put behind bars." Regardless of the positives, poorism is perceived by many as being no different than "treating humans like animals."
Lomas of LA Gang Tours is no stranger to these criticisms. The real danger, according to Francisco Ortega, a Los Angeles Human Relations Commission spokesperson, is that the tour may descend into something of a zoo visit. As he explains: "You're being carted about: 'Look at the cholo over there!' It could be perceived as demeaning for the people who are living in these conditions."
Backing Ortega's claims is Jan Perry, an LA councilwoman. "It's not right to put people on display," she says. It may be one thing to offer investors tours of South Central, which she does in a bid to attract redevelopers keen to cash in on the local real estate. But it's quite another thing to give tourists with no vested interests a glimpse at the daily lives and livelihoods of the people who may ultimately suffer most from redevelopment.
The situation just isn't that simple, according to Lancaster. Today, in Mumbai, investors and real estate developers pine over the commercial potential of slum areas. Dharavi, the city's largest slum, offers an attractive space in a city beyond bursting point for new offices, luxury apartments and retail complexes. There is tremendous interest in the capital that can be generated from redevelopment. What there isn't is sufficient interest in what might happen to the residents of the slums and, more importantly, to the thousands of businesses currently operating in Dharavi.
Good poorism, Lancaster suggests, may help generate that interest. In a tour that lasted no more than three hours, Lancaster reports how his perception of slum existence was transformed. He saw firsthand the thriving factories -- some 10,000 -- which operated throughout the area, providing employment and social interaction for many of Dharavi's 1 million residents. "[P]lastics, pottery, bluejeans, leather goods" are all produced there and, in all, generate somewhere in the vicinity of $665 million each year. As Lancaster concludes, "Dharavi is not just a slum, it is also a node on the global economy."
Labor, living and sanitation standards are next to nonexistent. Problems exist there beyond Lancaster's imagining. Yet, through the tour, he realized that in an imperfect world Dharavi offers to its residents what redevelopment never will: a community, a home, a livelihood. Redevelopment and relocation do nothing for these residents because they do nothing to address the most fundamental questions, namely, why did local authorities and corporations let labor, living and sanitation standards deteriorate to such inhumane standards in the first place; why, where there's no economic profit to be made, do they stand idly by, feigning ignorance to the schism that splits the haves from the have-nots?
The answers, of course, are complicated. And they're unpleasant. But that, for Lancaster, was precisely the tour's point: To complicate his original perception of the slums. To get him thinking. And most of all, to generate understanding, not just pity.
At its best, poorism shines a light on global exploitation, social division and economic inequality. It reminds tourists that it's not fair -- or not enough -- to level criticism solely on tourism operators, contemptible as they can be. Corporations and politicians, in many cases, are also culprits who factor into this complex and insidious situation. It is they who prey on the residents of urban decay, on their sense of powerlessness, treating them as animals to be tamed and placated. And so too do the tourists who now spend thousands of dollars just so they can see how the other half actually live. When poorism does this -- even if for the wrong reasons -- then it will have proved true the old travel idiom that "the more one travels, the more one's attention turns inward."
Poorism -- be it in South Central, Los Angeles or Dharavi, Mumbai -- has a role to play in the global tourism industry. It may be flawed, it may be voyeuristic, it may, in the worst scenario, even be exploitative. But it can also be informative, arresting and, in the rarest cases, offer a travel experience that alters the way we think about the world (especially, in the case of LA, the world we thought we knew) and of our place therein. Whether it does so or not depends, of course, on the specific tourism operator. But even more than that, it depends on us: the world's travelers who crisscross the planet in ever expanding numbers, hoping to see ourselves anew through what we have seen in others.