Viv slept under London’s Blackfriars Bridge for six months. Karim spent decades on the streets of Prague as a sex worker and drug user. Dieter lost his apartment in 2012 and trekked, on foot, from Thuringia to Berlin. Now, the three are “homeless tour guides” in their respective cities, and they’re just a small part of a global effort the U.N. hopes will use tourism to lift people out of poverty.
In a recent UN conference, which saw participants from 100 countries, U.N. Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon said in a statement, “When tourism is well-managed, it has tremendous capacity to create decent jobs, provide opportunities for inclusion and education, and contribute to preserving cultural heritage and the environment.”
The session, monitored by “Tourism for Poverty Reduction,” focused on ways governments, the international community, and academia can collaborate to reduce poverty and integrate such marginalized and disadvantaged groups into a global tourism society.
One concept— though not talked about by the U.N.— that’s seen growing traction is slum tourism.
For starters, slum— or poverty— tourism isn’t anything new. By the mid-1990s, international tour organizations began promoting walks, with homeless guides, through disadvantaged areas—ghettos of Cape Town, favelas in Rio de Janeiro and slums in Mumbai.
Experts, though, are split on the potential for a positive impact on those impoverished. On one hand, the tours employ the homeless—with companies like London Unseen Tours even giving their guides 60 percent of customer revenues. On the other hand, how do we know those running the tours are most in need? And there’s almost certainly an exploitative aspect to wanting to see how the poor live—though it’s also unknown if such an experience will compel you to help the homeless in the future.
As for now, recent years have seen slum tours grow into massively profitable businesses that
attract as many as 300,000 customers in a given year. Though the world still hasn’t found a way to help all of those in need, maybe this could be a small step to helping a few.