The great cities of the global south are held together by slums. Over half of Mumbai's population live in them. Johannesburg and Rio de Janeiro have huge township and favela populations in proportion to their size. These "informal neighbourhoods", as they're known, are complex and varied – with their own inequalities, migration patterns and political concerns – but they all have a similar relationship to the outside world. They're a useful reservoir of cheap labour, drained by the city's affluent middle-classes and capitalists, but are also considered a source of shame: stereotyped as dangerous, full of criminals, and literally kept off the map.
But in recent years the world's slums have entered the attention of a different kind of person from the middle-class professional in need of a cheap maid: the tourist. According to estimates by tour operators and researchers "over a million tourists visited a township, favela or slum in 2014". Tourists who want to experience the "authentic" city they're visiting, away from state-sanctioned attractions, have more and more opportunities to do so. There are tour companies from Rio to Mumbai that offer walking tours of their most impoverished districts, using local guides and often boasting how profits are channelled into the community. Even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited a slum in Mumbai on an official trip this year: the slack-jawed royals gawked at the immiseration, in streets cleared hours in advance by armed guards.
Obviously, there is something objectionable about "slumming". It started in Victorian Britain when wealthy Londoners visited poorer parts of the city, engaging in charity work and experiencing vicarious thrills. It disappeared with the arrival of the welfare state and social housing after the Second World War. But as neoliberal globalisation conquered the world in the 1980s and 1990s – creating a massive demand for labour in the cities of 'developing' countries and eroding state provision of housing – slums became a necessary form of urban living again. In the context of global inequality and cheaper holidays, slumming re-gained popularity too.
Slum tourism just feels wrong. But when pushed on the source of that wrongness, it's hard to explain: something along the lines of, "It's voyeuristic" or "It commodifies poverty" is a common response. While there's truth to that, it's a limiting way to think about such a strange and revealing phenomenon. Looking beyond these limits is the motivation for Fabian Frenzel's new book, Slumming It (Zed Books), which takes a closer look at the return of slum tourism in the global south and reaches unexpected conclusions.
Speaking via Skype from Berlin, where he works as an academic fellow at the University of Potsdam, Frenzel told me that we need to think about tourism and slums in a different way. First, you need to question the opposition between "tourist" and "local". Like every aspect of contemporary life, tourism exists in a network of commodification and exploitation. We do ourselves no favours by limiting our view of tourism to merely a capitalist industry that reduces all human interaction to quantity. "There is the potential within tourism for encounters with other people that escape the logic of commodification," Frenzel tells me. Slum tourism, he argues, can be a space in which questions about poverty and solidarity become clear.
Although the contemporary tourist is thought of as a destructive, culturally insensitive idiot with too much money, Frenzel reminds me the very existence of tourism and holidays – the ability for workers to have free time and have a life outside their jobs – is the result of radical struggle. "I don't think we think about this enough these days, the enormous struggles that existed over free time in the history of labour movements. It was only at the end of the 19th century that we had the introduction of public holidays, statutory leave and, eventually, the opening up of tourism." But more than being freedom from work, tourism is also freedom to be with other people that we wouldn't normally encounter – it's a "social practice that can be deeply rebellious".
One of the reasons tourists visit slums is because they care about inequality. Frenzel wants to isolate that moment of care and work out its political potential – it's this concern for inequality that gets lost with our intuitive condemnation of slum tourism.
His central claim is that slum tourism can be beneficial when it disturbs local assumptions about slums and forces municipal officials to recognise their existence. "In some cases, slums are literally being put on the map when they were previously ignored," Frenzel says. "All of a sudden on TripAdvisor there are hundreds of posts saying, 'I had the best time of my trip here… I met these people… I had a great encounter with the tour guide's family.' This helps create the structural process of what I call 'valorisation' [making something valuable or desirable]. Hillsborough in Johannesburg is a 'No Go' area if you ask anyone in Johannesburg – apart from the people who live there, of course – and yet on TripAdvisor is a highly rated place to visit."
In some cases, city officials have reacted unfavourably to the increasing appreciation of slums – proof, to Frenzel, that some good is being done. "Looking back to the early 2000s, favelas [in Rio de Janeiro] weren't mentioned in any of the maps you would get in the tourism office," Frenzel says. "But by 2013, there were actually complaints by city officials that Google Maps in particular were making Rio look like the entire city was made up of favelas – which it is! It was refreshing to see this reversal."
But what about slum residents themselves? It's very well to congratulate slum tourists' desire for the undesirable, but are the residents just passive recipients of western benevolence? Frenzel's book suggest otherwise. He gives examples of slum residents exploiting the tourists for their own ends, "using them to avoid evictions and mobilising them to support the argument."
Slum residents in Rio have even discussed using tourists as "buffers" against state violence. In some favelas, Rio's police engage in "pacification" – "patrolling neighbourhoods with their finger on the trigger where people are just doing their normal business… So there was this idea in one neighbourhood, Complexo De Maré, that the presence of tourists could potentially work as a buffer, if only by providing more witnesses or tempering the behaviour of the police."
As Frenzel points out early in the book, drawing from the political philosopher Jacques Rancière, politics is fundamentally about aesthetics – people only become human when they can be seen. In this sense, slum tourism that focuses a spotlight on the dark recesses of urban space is productive. However, and this is the main problem Frenzel identifies, "this visibility can also be dubious."
Once a slum is made visible it becomes primed for capture by capital. This is a trend that Frenzel has observed throughout the global south. "A colleague was discussing a case in Delhi which involved a charity bringing tourists to an informal neighbourhood. In the end, the neighbourhood was actually evicted on a public litigation case from richer neighbours – and he argues that it was partly caused by the attention the neighbourhood got. There were no structures to ensure solidarity between the tourists and the residents. So the visibility increased but so did the vulnerability." Sometimes, slum tourists become the unwitting shock troops for gentrification.
Frenzel's answer to this isn't to say that we should avoid encounters between people of different classes – slum tourists and slum residents – but to look at "the property regime" of cities i.e. who owns what.
The property regimes of slums often act as a barrier to gentrification. "In informal neighbourhoods the titles to land are often informal too," Frenzel explains. "They are negotiated in different ways, which makes it harder for a property fund based in London or New York to buy 1,500 houses in a favela by pressing a button."
Slum tourism can create the space for land to be handed over to private real estate companies, or it can act as part of the resistance. Frenzel says he's heard encouraging discussions in Rio, out of the context of an NGO that guided foreign activists around favelas to spark discussions, about "collective forms of tenure as an alternative to individualised forms of ownership." In this case, the positive encounters between people that have created the potential problem of gentrification have been used to fight it.
Although you get the sense Frenzel has over-stretched his definition of tourism – he includes journalism, activist travelling and academic fieldwork within it – Slumming It is a well-argued case for building political projects out of what we have in common, rather than being immobilised by cultural difference. This is all the more relevant in the early twenty-first century, when migration has expressed itself as a fundamental issue of global governance. Slums are no longer confined to a few cities of the global south, but are appearing across Europe's Schengen states, buttressed by razor wire and armed guards.
I ask Frenzel whether the recent solidarity drive to the so-called jungle in Calais, thwarted at the border by French authorities, constitutes a progressive example of slum tourism. He agrees. "It encompasses the better aspects of slum tourism in the developing world," he says. "It's about trying to form coalitions; it's about limited visibility; it's about adjusting perspectives between us and them and coming to a more equitable and fairer world… There's a lot wrong with slum tourism but it's definitely a step beyond closing your eyes."
'Slumming It' by Fabian Frenzel is available now, published by Zed Books.
More from VICE: