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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8


  1. 1.

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

  2. 2.

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

  3. 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. 4.

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

  5. 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. 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. 7.

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

  8. 8.

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

  9. 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. 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. 11.

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

  12. 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 http://www.districtsix.co.za, accessed 6 December 2008).

  13. 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. 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. 15.

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

  16. 16.

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

  17. 17.

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

  18. 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. 19.

    See http://www.cariocadesign.com/themaze or http://www.bealocal.com, accessed 6 December 2008.

  20. 20.

    See the statistical data of the Indian Tour Operators Promotion Council at http://www.itopc.org/travel-requisite/inbound-tourism-statistics.html, accessed 20 August 2009.

  21. 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. 22.

    See http://realitytoursandtravel.com/slumtours.html, accessed 6 August 2009.

  23. 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. 24.

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

  25. 25.

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


  1. Aderhold, P., Kösterke, A., von Laßberg, D., & Vielhaber, A. (2006). Tourismus in Entwicklungsländer. Ammerland: Studienkreis für Tourismus und Entwicklung e.V.

    Google Scholar 

  2. AP (2007). Township tourism booming as visitors want to see “real” South Africa. International Herald Tribune. Africa & Middle East, 3 January 2007.

  3. Chagas, V. (2006). O venhevai do turismo e o sobidesce da favela. Accessed December 6, 2008, from http://www.overmundo.com.br/overblog/o-venhevai-do-turismo-e-o-sobidesce-da-favela.

  4. Cornelissen, S. (2006). Tourism development and policy in Cape Town: Patterns, issues and lessons for other African cities. Presented as Part of the Seminar Series under the GDRI Research Programme, ‘Governing cities in Africa: Law, local institutions and urban identities since 1945,’ University of Stellenbosch, August, 25, 2006. Accessed July 14, 2008, from http://www.gdri-africancities.org/uploads/documents/GDRI_Cornelissen%20S.pdf.

  5. Danielzik, C., & Khan, R. (2006). Fern Weh: Statisten ihres eigenen Alltags. Townshiptouren in Kapstadt als Herausforderung für die Tourismuskritik. iz3w, 291, 37–39.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Davis, M. (2006). Planet of slums. London: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Dowling, R. M. (2007). Slumming in New York. From the Waterfront to Mythic Harlem. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Egner, H. (2006). Autopoiesis, Form und Beobachtung. Mitteilungen der Österreichischen Geographischen Gesellschaft, 148, 92–108.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Freire-Mederios, B. (2007). A favela que se vê e que se vende. Reflexões e polêmicas em torno de um destino turístico. Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais, 22(65), 62–72.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Freire-Mederios, B. (2009). The favela and its touristic transits. Geoforum, 40(4), 580–588.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Gentleman, A. (2006). Slum tours: a day trip too far? The Observer, 7 May 2006.

  12. Government of South Africa, Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. (1996). The Development and Promotion of Tourism in South Africa. Pretoria.

  13. Jaguaribe, B., & Hetherington, K. (2004). Favela Tours: Indistinct and maples representations of the real in reo de Janeiro. In M. Sheller & J. Urry (Eds.), Tourism mobilities. Places to play, places in play. London (pp. 155–166). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Jamal, T., & Lelo, L. (2009). Exploring the conceptual and analytical framing of dark tourism: From darkness to intentionality. Unpublished manuscript of the International Conference: Tourist experiences: Meanings, Motivations, Behaviours, April 1–4, 2009, University of Lancashire, Lancashire, UK.

  15. Kendle, A. (2008). Poverty tourism: Exploring the slums of India, Brazil, South Africa. Vagabondish: The Travelzine for Today’s Vagabond, 7 February 2008. Accessed December 6, 2008, from http://www.vagabondish.com/poverty-tourism-touring-the-slums-of-india-brazil-and-south-africa/.

  16. Koven, S. (2006). Slumming: Sexual and social politics in Victorian London. Princeton: University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Ludvigsen, A. (2002). Langa is not an island. Township Tourism in South Africa. Master Thesis. University Kopenhagen, Institut of Anthropology, Kopenhagen.

  18. Luhmann, N. (1984). Soziale Systeme: Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Luhmann, N. (1998). Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. 2 Bde. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp.

    Google Scholar 

  20. MacCannell, D. (1999). The tourist: A new theory of leisure class. Berkley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Machado, D. S. (2007). Turismo de Favela e Desenvolvimento Sustentável Um estudo do Turismo de Favela no bairro de Vila Canoa, zona sul do Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janiero. PUC–Rio, Departamento de Serviço Social.

  22. Margraf, M. (2006). Community based tourism: Ein instrument nachhaltiger Entwicklung ehemals benachteiligter Bevölkerungsgruppen am Beispiel Kaymandi, Südafrika. Saarbrücken: VDM-Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Menezes, P. (2007). Turismo e favela: Reflexões sobre ética e fotografia. Dialogando no Turismo, 1(3), 10–30.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Meschkank, J. (2009). Untersuchungen zu Raum- und Kulturkonstruktionen anhand des Slumtourismus in Mumbai, Indien. Unpublished Master Thesis. Department of Geography, University of Potsdam.

  25. Ministério do Turismo. (2008). Estatísticas básicas do turismo – Brasil. Brasília.

  26. Ministério do Turismo. (2009). Estudo da demanda turística internacional 2005–2007. Brasília.

  27. Müller, H., & Powell, L. (1994). Luhmann’s systems theory as a theory of modernity. New German Critique, No. 61, Special Issue on Niklas Luhmann, pp. 39–54.

  28. Pott, A. (2005). Kulturgeographie beobachtet. Probleme und Potentiale der geographischen Beobachtung von Kultur. Erdkunde, 59(2), 89–101.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Pott, A. (2007). Orte des Tourismus. Eine raum- und gesellschaftstheoretische Untersuchung. Bielefeld: Transcript.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Pott, A., & Steinbrink, M. (2009). Die Kultur des Slum(ming)s. Zur historischen Rekonstruktion eines globalen Phänomens. In H. Wöhler, A. Pott, & V. Denzer (Eds). Tourismusräume. Zur soziokulturellen Konstruktion eines globalen Phänomens. Bielefeld: Transcript (in press).

  31. Ramchander, P. (2004). Towards the responsible management of the socio-cultural impact of township tourism. Pretoria: University of Pretoria, Department of Tourism Management. Accessed August 14, 2008, from http://upetd.up.ac.za/thesis/available/etd-08262004-130507/.

  32. Ramchander, P. (2007). Township tourism: Blessing or blight? The case of Soweto in South Africa. In G. Richards (Ed.), Cultural tourism: Global and local perspectives (pp. 39–67). New York: Haworth Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Rath, J. (Ed.). (2007). Tourism, ethnic diversity and the city. New York, London: Routledge.

  34. Robinson, N., & Dale, C. (2009). Wanted man: A conceptual review of the role of dark tourism in facilitating the exploration of unsolved cold case murders. Unpublished manuscript of the International Conference: Tourist experiences: Meanings, motivations, behaviours, April 01–04, 2009, University of Lancashire, Lancashire, UK.

  35. Rogerson, C. M. (2003). Tourism and transformation. Small enterprise development in South Africa. Africa Insight, 33(1/2), 108–115.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Rogerson, C. M. (2004). Urban tourism and small tourism enterprise development in Johannesburg: The case of township tourism. GeoJournal, 60(3), 249–257.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Rolfes, M. (2007). Konstruktion und Konstrukteure unsicherer Räume. Beiträge aus der Sicht der Geographie. In: Zurawski, N. (Ed.), Surveillance Studies (pp. 67-84). Opladen/Farmington Hills.

  38. Rolfes, M., & Steinbrink, M., & Uhl, C. (2009). Township as Attraction. An Empirical Study of Township Tourism in Cape Town. Potsdam: Universitätsverlag. (Praxis Kultur- und Sozialgeographie, 46).

  39. Röwekamp, C. (2004). Tourismus in Indien – ungeschliffener Diamant. Accessed August 19, 2009, from http://www.spiegel.de/reise/fernweh/0,1518,332853,00.html.

  40. Schröder, H. (2007). Armut live. Südwind Magazin (2), Wien, 24.

  41. Simone-Charteris, M. (2009). Dark tourism and the political tourism interface: The case of Northern Island. Unpublished manuscript of the International Conference: Tourist experiences: Meanings, motivations, behaviours, April 1–4, 2009, University of Lancashire, Lancashire, UK.

  42. Spencer Brown, G. (1969/1997). Laws of form. Gesetze der form. Lübeck: Bohmeier.

  43. Statistics South Africa. (2008). Tourism, 2008. Report No. 03-51-02 (2008). Pretoria.

  44. Stone, P. (2006). A dark tourism spectrum: Towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions and exhibitions. Tourism: An Interdisciplinary International Journal, 52(2), 145–160.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Stone, P. R., & Sharpley, R. (2008). Consuming dark tourism: A thanatological perspective. Annals of Tourism Research, 35(2), 574–595.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. United Nations Human Settlements Programme. (2003). The Challenge of Slums. Global report on human settlements, 2003. London and Sterling: Earthscan Publications Ltd.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Urry, J. (2002). The tourist gaze. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Viggiano, B. (2008). Dharavi through a peephole. The Times of India, 18 May 2008.

  49. Weiner, E. (2008). Slum visits: Tourism or voyeurism? New York Times, Travel, 9 March 2008.

  50. Welz, G. (1993). Slum als Sehenswürdigkeit. ‘Negative Sightseeing’ im Städtetourismus. In D. Kramer & R. Lutz (Eds.), Tourismus-Kultur, Kultur-Tourismus (pp. 39–53). Münster: Lit-Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Yurchyshyn, A. (February, 2008). A dose of reality. Poverty-tour guides explain the relatively new concept—and show how to find an excursion that’s right for you. Accessed December 6, 2008, from http://www.budgettravel.com/bt-dyn/content/article/2008/01/07/AR2008010701680.html.

Download references


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.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Manfred Rolfes.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Rolfes, M. Poverty tourism: theoretical reflections and empirical findings regarding an extraordinary form of tourism. GeoJournal 75, 421–442 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-009-9311-8

Download citation


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