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Embarrasment of Riches
May 11, 2007 7:29 PM   Subscribe

Poorism or Poverty Tourism is a growing trend among otherwise thrill-jaded first world tourists and is engendering a lively debate as to whether "poorists" are helping the impoverished areas they are guided through, or are merely gawking voyeurs.
posted by telstar (47 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks for the links. There's a great article and, of course, photos of Dharavi (the slum mentioned in the first link) in this month's National Geographic.
posted by Staggering Jack at 7:52 PM on May 11, 2007


HA. Those poorists would never make it through my neighborhood alive!
posted by davy at 8:08 PM on May 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wait until these tourists start getting kidnapped or murdered, we'll see how long this lasts.
posted by geoff. at 8:11 PM on May 11, 2007


Of course if you encounter bedbugs at some of those dingy hotels, they'll probably ride home in your belongings and you'll get to enjoy those aspects of your vacation for many weeks or months to follow.
posted by rolypolyman at 8:20 PM on May 11, 2007


Poverty tourism is not new, just the neologism. When the good Doctor Samuel Johnson famously traveled to Scotland in the 1770s (later documented by his travel companion Boswell) it was his desire to see people living in the poorest conditions outside of civilized society. Certainly many other examples exist - one can image sheltered and wealthy Romans traveling to poor places to see how the plebeians live.
posted by stbalbach at 8:26 PM on May 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


[not poorist]
posted by grobstein at 8:31 PM on May 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't see how this can be anything but positive. Tourists face the reality of poverty and impoverished areas get money.
posted by CaptMcalister at 8:34 PM on May 11, 2007


Yes, I am inclined to think that your stereotypical "ugly American" would not want to do this -- that people who sought out this kind of experience would be able to benefit from it. And of course, benefit the slum residents too, directly or indirectly. What could be bad?

Shantaram is one guy's (fictionalized) account of living in Dharavi -- coming soon to a multiplex near you.
posted by Methylviolet at 8:50 PM on May 11, 2007


The help is economic and real, but incidental and its impact questionable. The poverty fight is a big field of study and practice, a lot of people dedicate their lives to it. The idea of tourists "helping to fight poverty" by visiting a place is like saying I helped the study of Chaucer by spending ten minutes in your office on campus looking at the books on your shelf.
posted by The Straightener at 8:59 PM on May 11, 2007


Next stop, leper colony!
posted by YoBananaBoy at 9:06 PM on May 11, 2007


While it's not precisely Dharavi, Born Into Brothels is a good documentary on children of prostitutes in Calcutta. Good juice for Netflix.
posted by efbrazil at 9:06 PM on May 11, 2007


I am inclined to think that your stereotypical "ugly American" would not want to do this

Agreed, I'm seeing this as being more for the kind of people who'd gush about how humbling it was, and how they really felt closer to the world, as a citizen and y'know, a human being, and how it just broke their heart, but the inimitable spirit and, and soul, of the people was just so inspiring, y'know? Remember how that one boy had a smile that just lit up that shanty, honey?

Then they'd leave the fair-trade coffeebar and walk out to the car, ignoring the panhandler with practiced ease and cross the street to avoid those two black teenagers.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:08 PM on May 11, 2007 [10 favorites]


I would not intrude upon the poor in this manner because I am too busy gentrifying an old apt in the Lower East Side (NYC).
posted by Postroad at 9:20 PM on May 11, 2007


They wouldn't step anywhere near the place if they didn't have their escape back to a comfortable home.
posted by spiderskull at 9:39 PM on May 11, 2007


I married into an Indian family. When I went to visit them, we spent some time in the Mumbai slums and it was one of the most mind blowing things I'd ever seen.

I can't imagine what an incredible asshole I would feel like if I had paid to see it as part of an organized Lonely Planet tour.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:48 PM on May 11, 2007


I've traveled in poor areas of rural Brazil, and I feel that the exchange was valuable for both me and those with whom I crossed paths.

As with all tourism, the problem is not that people are coming, but that they don't necessarily understand what they are seeing. That they aren't investing the time or energy to actually understand.

For example, recently traveling on a boat down the Amazon, I met some Americans. They didn't speak Portuguese and they told me a funny "local" guy on the boat on whom they bestowed a nickname in regards to his lack of teeth. In doing so, they created a character based on preconceptions and stereotypes. My gut reaction was "wow, they are just mocking poverty" (a rather standard manifestation of poverty at that) but then understood that given their time and inability to speak to him, that's the best they could do.

Of course it's acceptable for people to travel and learn. Done in the right way, this could be a valuable educational tool. Unfortunately, it's capitalist fueled tourism, and it's going to be about making a quick dollar.
posted by iamck at 10:03 PM on May 11, 2007


Tourists are ruining travel.
posted by Floydd at 10:28 PM on May 11, 2007


Hey! I have an idea:

Put on your slumming clothes and get your car
Let's go sightseeing where the high-toned people are
Come on, there's lots of fun in store for you
See how the other half lives on Park Avenue

Let's go slumming, take me slumming
Let's go slumming on Park Avenue

Let us hide behind a pair of fancy glasses
And make faces when a member of the classes passes

Let's go smelling where they're dwelling
Sniffing ev'rything the way they do

Let us go to it, they do it
Why can't we do it too?
Let's go slumming, nose thumbing, on Park Avenue

[2nd chorus:]
Let's go slumming, take me slumming
Let's go slumming on Park Avenue

Where the social hearts for Broadway lights are throbbing
And they spend their nights in smart cafes hobknobbing, snobbing

Come let's eye them, pass right by them
Looking down our noses as they do

Let us go to it, they do it
Why can't we do it too?
Let's go slumming, crumb bumming, on Park Avenue

posted by trip and a half at 10:35 PM on May 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Staggering Jack: Thanks for the link to the Nat Geo photos, those were quite good.

Some folks in this thread have recommended films, to which I'd add The Courtesans of Bombay. Well worth a view if you ever have the chance.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:53 PM on May 11, 2007


As a teenager I thought I was living rough on the streets of the San Francisco Bay Area. We slept in the parks, ate free meals in church basements, wore free clothes that townies just left out for us and panhandled coffee money. What I didn't realize is that compared to a lot of the world's people we were almost middle class.
posted by davy at 10:55 PM on May 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


I don't really get the hate here. Sure, there's a lot about these people we could sneer at, but really, how can this not be good?

The idea of tourists "helping to fight poverty" by visiting a place is like saying I helped the study of Chaucer by spending ten minutes in your office on campus looking at the books on your shelf.
The Straightener

That's a bad analogy. If a person goes to Slum X, for whatever reason, and spends a few bucks there, that's a few bucks that weren't there before. And, more importantly since the point of the post was that this is becoming a trend, this person will probably tell more people about Slum X, and they will go and spend money there too. This can only help the local economy, as more people with money coming in will create jobs and resources. Further, since, as noted above, these are probably not the types of tourists who will want a McDonald's around and in fact do this to actively seek out "different" experiences, they will probably work to preserve, or at least try not to carelessly destroy, the native cultures. So it seems like this is something that should be encouraged, both for the money it brings to places that need it, and for the possibility that people might actually learn something valuable from this exchange.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:07 AM on May 12, 2007


Each summer, I like to go to Disneyworld and gawk at all the great big Americans who are too fat to walk without motorized wheelchairs.

While I'm there, I spend my money in McDonalds and KFC and the various places that employ the members of this sub-lumpen class, so I'm not really exploiting them -- I'm actually benefitting them economically. At night, I go and hire their better-looking daughters at the local lap dancing bars, thereby ensuring that the next generation can escape the poverty trap and won't suffer the fate of their parents.

I now see that I can increase the benefits that I bring to these poor Americans by organizing a tour. Without enlightened people like us, great American institutions like White Castle and Spearmint Rhino may well run the risk of collapsing as the indigenous population's taste moves on to different, more bourgeois habits. Unless we're really careful, dieting and healthy eating may soon kill off the morbidly obese American altogether.

We cannot allow this endangered species to go without a fight, therefore I urge all of you to visit Florida. Visit her theme parks, fast food joints and titty bars. Do so regularly and often, because by doing so, we celebrate diversity.

The next generations will thank you for it.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:01 AM on May 12, 2007 [13 favorites]


"When I went to visit them, we spent some time in the Mumbai slums and it was one of the most mind blowing things I'd ever seen."

Indeed. I spent about three weeks in Mumbai in 2005 and wandered freely through almost all of the slums I came across. The people were wonderful, trying to communicate in any way possible and sometimes offering me food or drink.

I've also done this in Cairo, Lagos, Istanbul and other African or Middle Eastern cities, but I think it helps that when I travel I hardly look like a wealthy tourist - more like a New York biker. So nobody bothers me, except for the kids who are fascinated by my tattoos.

While I've got a problem with the organised tour aspect, I can't help but think of this as a positive, especially is even just one individual or couple decide to later return on their own, or perhaps even donate some cash to a worthy (local) cause.
posted by Mutant at 2:17 AM on May 12, 2007


You really don't have to go far to see total poverty. You don't even need a passport. Simply become a cable guy in any city in the US. I have seen the poorest of the poor ordering the biggest cable package with little or no furniture in the house. There are places that literally look like Baghdad all over the US.
posted by thedoctorpants at 2:38 AM on May 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


"I have seen the poorest of the poor ordering the biggest cable package with little or no furniture in the house."

Hmmm, sounds familiar... this from that National Geographic photoessay on Dharavi:

...a household without a television is uncommon in Dharavi.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:46 AM on May 12, 2007


If I travelled to India, I would go on this tour. Not because I relish poverty, but because I travel to learn about places, and if I were to visit India and never confront the poverty which is a part of life there (along with markets and food, an fights over forests, and a million other things), I would feel like I had visited simply some fantasy named India.
posted by jb at 2:53 AM on May 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


PeterMcDermott's comment upthread is spot on.
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:59 AM on May 12, 2007


I spent a couple of years in India and was always amazed at the hippie circuit thing, which I tried to avoid. In Pahr Gang in Delhi, in Goa, in Himachel Pradesh, super-fucked up hippies were paying kids to roll spliffs, deal w/ their laundry, whatever. When I talked to said hippies, who were mainly from Europe and some from Israel and America, there was a badge of honor thing about how little they could live on in this way, how far around the world they could travel, how awesome the drugs were. The Indians who I spoke with about it saw it as a way to make a little money but were understandably not crazy about making a living this way. I can't help but think if you're gonna have to live with "poorism tourists," it's gotta be a step up that they aren't bombed out of their mind 21 year olds in tie-dyed beachwear.
posted by DenOfSizer at 3:35 AM on May 12, 2007


DenOfSizer, I think you've perhaps delineated a distinction here between the "poorist" and "purist poorist". ;-)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:42 AM on May 12, 2007


That report was followed by a panel discussion in which the moderator all but accused Poojari of crimes against humanity. "If you were living in Dharavi, in that slum, would you like a foreign tourist coming and walking all over you?" he sputtered. "This kind of slum tourism, it is a clear invasion of somebody's privacy....You are treating humans like animals."

When I first moved to The East Village in the mid 1980's, large parts of the 'hood consisted of burned out or abandoned buildings.

We used to sit on the sidewalk on Ave B and flip the bird to the tour buses that drove through the 'hood. As I recall, the tour companies mentioned that Europeans formed the bulk of their customers, who could hardly believe such a slum existed in America, let alone a prosperous city like New York.
posted by Mutant at 3:50 AM on May 12, 2007


A corrollary to this is the way in which musems have been considering the ways in which they can engage and aid the communities around them. The Red Location Museum for example, is located in a slum near Port Elizabethtown.
posted by honest knave at 4:20 AM on May 12, 2007


This can only help the local economy, as more people with money coming in will create jobs and resources.

There are two main problems there: A) they're bad jobs, relatively speaking, and B) tourism creates a culture of dependence. The factory jobs in places like China are unpleasant in comparison, but they generate real wealth and can -- at least in theory -- cause real economic development. Tourism is better than starving, but it never gets a lot better. It's so capital intensive that the rich guys own everything, the locals get very little, and there's no real infrastructure development other than hotels, bars, and restaurants. It's an economy, but it's a profoundly unhealthy, imbalanced one.

So, yeah, it's better than nothing, but it's also a trap.
posted by Malor at 5:19 AM on May 12, 2007


...and there's no real infrastructure development other than hotels, bars, and restaurants. It's an economy, but it's a profoundly unhealthy, imbalanced one.

And when it comes to this particular kind of "poorism", it's hard to imagine that hotels, bars or restaurants would ever open in these most squalid and destitute of areas. I'd think that even the most "well intentioned" traveler will not want to stay overnight in a place like Dharavi.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:34 AM on May 12, 2007


I realise PeterMcDermott's comment was in jest, but I would actually pay $$$ for that fat tour.
posted by dydecker at 6:35 AM on May 12, 2007


You wanna sleep with common people?
You wanna sleep with common people like me?
posted by Hildegarde at 6:55 AM on May 12, 2007


We used to sit on the sidewalk on Ave B and flip the bird to the tour buses that drove through the 'hood.

I occasionally got the urge to drop my pants and pace back and forth screaming obscenities. But the tour guide would've just said 'here we see a genuine New York crazy person. Ah, the plumage...'
posted by jonmc at 7:19 AM on May 12, 2007


There are two main problems there: A) they're bad jobs, relatively speaking, and B) tourism creates a culture of dependence. ... and there's no real infrastructure development other than hotels, bars, and restaurants. It's an economy, but it's a profoundly unhealthy, imbalanced one.

Las Vegas? Niagara Falls?

Without poorists, a slum is a slum. With poorists, a slum is a slum with perhaps a little more money flowing through it. Poorist money helps the local who gets it directly and it helps other locals when that money is spent locally. Maybe the money gets someone hired and out of the slum. No one is hurt by a few wankers driving through the bad part of town and leaving a little money behind.

The real problem Dharavi has is that the local government is going to clear the slum to make way for local rich folk's office towers. The world needs slums and shantytowns as an alternative to living nowhere. Protect Dharavi from developers, not from tourists.
posted by pracowity at 7:34 AM on May 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


A cheap holiday in other people's misery.
posted by porn in the woods at 7:35 AM on May 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, it's capitalist fueled tourism, and it's going to be about making a quick dollar.

Which way do you think the money will be flowing? Please tell me you're not begrudging these entrepreneurial poor folk their attempt at making a living, just because it's "capitalist" and "quick".
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 8:50 AM on May 12, 2007


Huh. They used to run tour busses through Haight Ashbury at the height of hippiedom, too. People would run alongside the busses holding up mirrors.
posted by jokeefe at 12:06 PM on May 12, 2007


Laugh along even though they're laughing at you and the stupid things that you do.

Because you think that poor is cool.
posted by bwg at 3:35 PM on May 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


People would run alongside the busses holding up mirrors.

That was an absolutely spot-on tactic. Brilliant! Whenever people display their knee-jerk hatred and/or dismissal of everything 'hippie-like', I'd point them to this.

On the other hand, I'd point them away from some of the blissed-out and utterly embarassing body-spasms that passed for *dancing* at rock festivals...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:47 PM on May 12, 2007


Protect Dharavi [and the Lower East Side] from developers, not from tourists!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:49 PM on May 12, 2007


On the other hand, I'd point them away from some of the blissed-out and utterly embarassing body-spasms that passed for *dancing* at rock festivals...

remember that old saying from the sixties, "don't knock it 'til you've tried it" ?
posted by telstar at 5:13 PM on May 12, 2007


remember that old saying from the sixties, "don't knock it 'til you've tried it" ?

Heh. Well, see, that's the thing, telstar, I think I did try it... Of course, with what all the drugs did to my memory, I can't be entirely sure...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:18 PM on May 12, 2007


I do this all the time, sort of, in Cairo. I mean, I suppose I'm not visiting actual slums, but I am going to very poor areas of the city -- areas where many people are making something under $2/day.

I speak Arabic very poorly but I try to use it with the people I meet. I try to be friendly and I don't act like a tourist, partically because I'm not -- usually I'm there because I am buying something from the market, having something to eat, or looking for a place to sit down and have some tea. The point is, as far as these people are concerned, this is their home and this is how they're living. It's not useful to come in and observer how "oppressed" they are, or even appreciate how "industrious" they are. Basically, I just behave the same as I would in a non-poor area -- be friendly, take part in what is happening in the area, treat the people as equals, etc. The main difference is that I'm more willing to spend my money in one of these areas, since it goes a lot farther! I'm more than wiling to be generous, but these people don't want handouts, the just want to sell their items at a fair price.

The thing that continues to surprise me about Cairo is the huge disparity in costs in the city. You can go to an Egyptian takeout and get a sandwich for 50 piasters (half of an Egyptian pound, a little less than 10c) or go to a fancy Western-style cafe and pay 30 times that, easily, for a fairly average looking hamburger. I think it reflects the fact that the gulf between the rich, the middle class, and the poor, is incredibly wide in Egypt.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:04 PM on May 12, 2007


This sort of thing bothers me. In South Africa, they are called "culture tours", into poor areas. I can't escape the notion that this casts the people there into the role of zoo animals, on display.
posted by Goofyy at 5:38 AM on May 14, 2007


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