A Boom In ‘Poorism’

Most tourists scrupulously avoid grubby alleys in foreign cities where they might brush past gun-toting drug lords, but Kevin Outterson, a law professor at Boston University, actually paid to do it. It was precisely the kind of experience that drew him to Brazil's favelas, or slums. Outterson is part of a small but growing band of tourists who prefer to skip traditional hot spots and visit squalor instead. "It's not Disneyland," Outterson says. He's also visited junkyards in Cairo and in Mazatlán, Mexico, where he cooked lunch for local trash collectors. Such excursions into the world's poorest pockets can cause stereotypes to fizzle; Outterson found the favela dwellers to be industrious—not "desperate and crushed" as one might expect.

The trips are all part of an educational—and perhaps a bit voyeuristic—new travel niche dubbed "poorism." Private operators in Soweto, South Africa; Mumbai, India; Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and, naturally, New York all offer similar tours. They're usually thrifty walking journeys that last a few hours, during which clients visit commercial districts, schools and medical facilities. "We deliberately stop and spend money," says Outterson. There are no reliable statistics about the trend, but guides say anecdotally that interest has boomed in recent years. Luiz Fantozzi, founder of a favela tour in Brazil, says he attracted two clients per week five years ago; he drew 650 last month alone.

Guides are typically natives, and they lace their tours with vivid stories about their own impoverished roots. In Kibera, a vast squatter settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, James Asudi takes people to his former home, where he slept on a thin mat and would sometimes go two days without food. "It's exposing the filth," he says. His company offers a security detail to protect tourists, but operators say they're more concerned about protecting the locals from insensitive guests. Photos, for instance, are often prohibited. Some critics worry that "poorism" can be exploitive, even with the best intentions. There are better ways to confront poverty, says Harold Goodwin, director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism in England, but done properly, such tours can offer a rare glimpse "at eye level" of these communities. And that's better than not looking at all.