Slum Tourism in South Africa: Cultural Experience or Exploitation


In South Africa and many other developing nations around the world, the less fortunate populations lives in what are called slums or (as they are in South Africa) townships.

In recent years, some companies have begin leading tours into these townships, allowing tourists to get a look at what life is like for the people who live in the. They tout these experiences as beneficial to both the tourists who gains a more authentic experience and to the residents who earn some income from the tours.

But slum tourism isn’t so cut and dry. Opponents argue that the tours are exploitative to the people living in the townships and that the people are put on display, in a sort of living zoo, for tourists who gawk at them. And they point out that it may be difficult to know for sure if the tour operator is actually putting any money back into the economy. It it possible that the community visited by the tours sees no actual benefits. The amount you’ve paid for cheap flights to South Africa may be more money than they in a year, so it can be hard to stomach the idea of seeing them live in harsh conditions. Even if you’re a shoestring traveler staying in cheap Cape Town hotels and traveling on small budget, you can escape the fact that the divide between your life and theirs is gaping.

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But, it doesn’t have to be. There are ways to explore a township or slum and have a more meaningful, less exploitative experience. First, consider ditching the tour guide. Though there are certain areas where you don’t want to be caught walking alone – especially at night and certainly not with any valuables on you – other townships are safer. Ask around to find out when and where the best place to visit is, and go with a small group rather than alone. You can also hire a private independent guide rather than booking through a company which may not be locally owned. You’ll get a more local perspective and may be more welcomed if you go with a resident of the area, and you’ll be helping out at least one person in the community.

If you do go with a tour, do some background checks before you book. Talk to people who have gone on the tour before to see if they felt the locals were being treated fairly and ask for more information on how the tour company is actually helping the community.

Photo by jschinker