Can growth of slum tourism support development of social justice?

Fabian Frenzel

New research from the University of Leicester examines whether slums across the world have become ‘cool’ as more and more tourists discover favelas, ghettos, townships and barrios on leisurely visits.

Dr Fabian Frenzel, a lecturer in organisation studies at the University of Leicester and senior research associate with the University of Johannesburg, has been investigating the impact of ‘slumming it’ for years.

He examines the allure of slums for better-off visitors and the impact it has on slums as well as on the world stage.

In a new study, ‘Slumming It, The Tourist Valorization of Urban Poverty’, published by Zed Books on 25 June, Dr Frenzel argues that slum tourism doesn’t have to be exploitative – it can draw attention to important global justice issues and encourage new networks of solidarity and care.

Fabian bookHe said: “Slum tourism has many forms and shades. During the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, some favelas offered AirBnb accommodation. But rather than a hiding the true identity of their location, prospective landlords advertised the specific charm of neighbourhoods such as Vidigal, that up until very recently suffered from stigma related to drug gangs and violence.

“Many tourists seek to better understand the conditions in which urban poverty unfolds today. People may debate the salience of different forms of tourism to achieve such understanding. But let us not forget that other tourists choose to completely ignore inequality and other problems in the places they visit. The morality of slum tourism needs to be discussed in this light.”

Dr Frenzel, of the University of Leicester School of Management, argues that while slum tourism often evokes moral outrage, critics rarely ask about what motivates this tourism, or what wider consequences and effects it initiates. His study investigates the lure that slums exert on their better-off visitors, looking at the many ways in which this curious form of attraction ignites changes both in the slums themselves and on the world stage.

Dr Frenzel states: “I hope to provoke people into thinking differently on tourism and on slums. There is a tendency to not take tourists seriously, to think of their involvement with the world as superficial and idiotic. My research shows how tourism changes places, and how it affects social conflicts, how it works as a social force.

“Slums are also little understood. The term itself is derogative and describes a variety of very different places in the world that seem to share one thing in the main: they are reservoirs of labour that the city needs but does not fully recognise. Tourism disturbs local value regimes according to which some neighbourhoods matter more than others. Tourism partly reverses this: In Mumbai the informal neighbourhood of Dharavi is one of the most visited places, on par with world heritage sites in the city.”

The research covers slums in Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok and multiple cities in South Africa, Kenya and India.  The study examines the roots and consequences of the growing phenomenon whose effects have ranged from gentrification and urban policy reform to the organization of international development and poverty alleviation.

Controversially, Frenzel argues that the rise of slum tourism has drawn attention to important global justice issues, and is far more complex than we initially acknowledged.

Slumming It: The Tourist Valorization of Urban Poverty’ by Fabian Frenzel is published in June 2016 by Zed Books, priced £16.99 | $29.95 | ISBN 9781783604432

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