Poverty Tourism and a Refusal to Question Worldviews

I was in India this past Christmas and New Year’s, visiting family. I was there for about three weeks, and while there, I noticed something that bothered me.

It started when my mom’s friend mentioned that her son had come back from school in Australia for the holidays. A couple of this guy’s friends – white and Australian – came to visit him as well, and when my mom’s friend asked if there was anything they wanted to see in Mumbai, they answered with Dharavi. Which happens to be the largest slum in India. A few days after I heard that story, I noticed a taxi with a sign advertising “Slum Tours”.

People take a sick pleasure in observing other people’s suffering. This is unashamed exploitation of the poor and homeless, and thousands of people being seen as nothing more than a form of entertainment. And travelling to a foreign country only to go to a deeply impoverished neighbourhood and gawk at the people living there a way of pretending that there’s no such thing as poverty in the West and a way of refusing to look at the whole picture of a place that’s often inaccurately represented.

India is a huge country, with a billion people, a very long history, and so much diversity in culture and language. It’s absolutely not all homeless people and poverty. There’s so, so much to see, but there are tourists that don’t seem to want to see any of it, and instead seem to be intentionally avoiding anything that challenges their existing perspective of what the country is like.

And yes! Of course it’s important to not bury your head in the sand. It’s important to not sanitize and gloss over the unpleasant things. But poverty, disease, and crime is what most people in the West see when it comes to just about any developing country, not just India.There’s more to all of these places than that.