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Travel lingo: What is "poorism"?

By Sean O'Neill
updated February 21, 2017

In an article titled "Next Stop, Squalor," Smithsonian magazine talks about organized tours of the world's worst slums. (This topic is one that Budget Travel touched on in its 2004 article, "Reality Tours to the Emerging World.")

Poverty tourism is the most common label used to describe the trend in tours that allow travelers to see the wretched of the earth up-close. Some folks--though not BT--also call the trend "poorism."

As Smithsonian's article points out: "For years, tour operators have been escorting foreign visitors through Rio de Janeiro's infamous favelas, with their drug gangs and ocean views, and the vast townships outside Cape Town and Johannesburg, where tourists are invited to mix with South Africans at one of the illicit beer halls known as shebeens. A nonprofit group in New Delhi charges tourists for guided walks through the railway station, to raise money for the street children who haunt its platforms."

Poverty tours give some people a case of the squirms. To wit: A new tour of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) India, which is reputedly the largest slum in Asia, has been criticized by some Indian newspapers, such as Mumbai-based Mid-Day as being exploitative. The tour company, Reality Tours and Travel, counters by saying that its walking tour is educational, and its website points out that 80 percent of its profits after tax are donated to local charitable agencies.

Smithsonian's article is, on balance, favorable to slum tours. The author John Lancaster, took a tour of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India. He writes: "It seemed to me that the purpose of the tour was not to generate pity, but understanding."

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