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Poverty tourism: theoretical reflections and empirical findings regarding an extraordinary form of tourism


During the mid-1990s, a new form of tourism was established in metropolises of several developing countries or emerging nations. This type of tourism consists in visits to the most disadvantaged parts of the respective city. Poverty tours or slum tours are offered on a relatively large scale in the South African cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, as well as in Indian metropolises, to name some important examples. The target group of these tours consists primarily of international tourists. It is estimated that 40,000 such tourists visit favelas in Rio de Janeiro each year, around 300,000 the townships in Cape Town. This contribution refers to and comments on these developments and insights regarding poverty tourism or slumming, based on empirical research and experiences in South Africa, Brazil, and India. It will be shed light on the phenomenon from an observational-theoretical perspective. It is aimed to open a discussion on the ways poverty tours or slumming observes and simultaneously programmatically charges poverty. And, it will be considered in which way poverty tourism is observed.

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  1. See the considerations about slumming in New York in Dowling (2007).

  2. See the reflections in Freire-Medeiros (2009, p. 582).

  3. The term dark tourism was coined by Foley and Lennon in the mid 1990s. However, this kind of tourism already exists much longer. Thus the Christian pilgrimage to the sight where Jesus Christ was crucified can be brought into this context (Robinson and Dale 2009). Many of the dark tourism definitions are limited and apply solely to places of death and grief. These include among others concentration camps, battlegrounds, and cemeteries.

  4. See the typology of Stone (2006) on dark tourism sites and the dark tourism spectrum.

  5. This approach is based on the theory of social systems by the German sociologist Luhmann (1984, 1998). For an overview see Müller and Powell (1994).

  6. For Luhmann’s systems theory, these differentiations and observations are constitutive in grasping the difference between system and surroundings (Luhmann 1984, p. 243).

  7. Compare with a relevant example regarding video surveillance in Rolfes (2007, pp. 74–75).

  8. A large proportion of the tour companies in Cape Town that were interviewed for the survey were founded between 2001 and 2005.

  9. A major part of the empirical evaluation was conducted within a research project in Cape Town, led by the author in February/March 2007. Furthermore, during another field stay in February/March 2008 own empirical follow-up surveys took place.

  10. It is difficult to clearly quantify the number of companies offering township tours in Cape Town. According to the estimation of the author it ranges between 40 and 50 companies, highly varying in terms of profile and degree of professionalism.

  11. All results are available in detail in Rolfes et al. (2009).

  12. The District Six Museum documents the correspondent district’s development history. In 1966, the “non-white” population of this hitherto multicultural district had been expelled and forcibly moved to townships. At the beginning of the 1980s all building in this area were demolished. The land has lain waste ever since. (See “About the museum” at, accessed 6 December 2008).

  13. 15% of the 179 respondents had seen a township before. Most of them had been to Soweto, Johannesburg, probably the best-known township of South Africa.

  14. This does not apply to the word pairs modern/traditional and African/non-African, as these do not include an intrinsic positive/negative connotation.

  15. The empirical analyses were conducted during the author’s favela visit in July/August 2008.

  16. The statements made about the tours here are based on the comprehensive studies by Freire-Medeiros (2007, 2009) and Menezes (2007).

  17. This is also common practice with other favela tours, cf. Machado (2007: 32).

  18. The truth is that drug dealers make the peace … Peace means no robbery, and that law is very well respected. Statement by a tour operator in Rio de Janeiro. Quoted in Yurchyshyn (2008).

  19. See or, accessed 6 December 2008.

  20. See the statistical data of the Indian Tour Operators Promotion Council at, accessed 20 August 2009.

  21. The term slum tourism is used in numerous sources referring to touristic tours to informal settlements in Indian megacities. The operators of such tours also describe them as slum tours.

  22. See, accessed 6 August 2009.

  23. One part of the empirical research was conducted by the author during a field stay in Mumbai in March 2009. Additionally, an extensive survey was conducted in the course of a master thesis between February and April 2009 (Meschkank 2009).

  24. Qualitative interviews with 19 tour participant were conducted. (Meschkank 2009, pp. 55–57).

  25. Cf. on dark tourism: Stone and Sharpley (2008); See reports in the mass media about war or terror tourism.


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This article is a strongly modified, complementary version to the paper “Poorism—What is shown to the tourists?” presented at the International conference: Tourist Experiences: Meanings, Motivations, Behaviours, April 1–4, 2009, University of Lancashire. I want to thank Annette Balch, Ralf bei der Kellen and Damian Mac Con Uladh for translating and revising this article, as well as Christina Uhl for her active support and the helpful assistance in finishing this article.

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Correspondence to Manfred Rolfes.

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Rolfes, M. Poverty tourism: theoretical reflections and empirical findings regarding an extraordinary form of tourism. GeoJournal 75, 421–442 (2010).

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  • Poverty tourism
  • Slumming
  • Township
  • Favela
  • Slum
  • Observational-theoretical approach