In the lobby of Nairobi’s Boulevard Hotel you’ll see signs promoting all manner of tourist sites, from a Maasai crafts market to animal parks to the Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) museum. For now, at least, you’re unlikely to see any signs promoting tours of Nairobi’s infamous Kibera slum, the largest slum in East Africa. But that doesn’t mean such tours are difficult to find.
As a reporter covering the debut of Kibera’s first free school for girls in 2009, I made multiple visits to the massive slum, where an estimated 1.5 million people eke out an existence mostly without basic services such as electricity, running water, sanitation, and police protection. Winding my way through streets lined with garbage and human waste, dodging rivulets of raw sewage and ducking the edges of rusty corrugated iron roofs, I was shocked to learn that this was a popular tourist site.
Kibera stands at the pinnacle of “poverty tourism”—one of many terms, along with “slum safaris” and “poverty porn,” for the trend. But it is hardly alone. From Soweto to São Paulo, Jakarta to Chicago, urban “slumming” has become a global phenomenon, a tool for entrepreneurs to entice tourists as well as for some nonprofit aid and religious groups to entice donors. Meanwhile, a lively debate rages in print, on the Internet, and in academia about the ethics of what promoters call “reality tourism” and detractors say exploits and dehumanizes slum residents.