Poverty Tourism: Q&A with Chris Way

In the course of fact-checking Peggy Loftus’s latest online special on poverty tours, we talked with Reality Tours and Travel co-founder Chris Way. His company runs tours through Mumbai’s Dharavi, considered by some to be Asia’s largest slum. Since the rebound of tourism in Mumbai after last November’s attacks and the buzz around Slumdog Millionaire, he guesstimates business is up 25 percent.

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How did you create Reality Tours and Travel? How did you get it off the ground?
I got the idea from the favela tours in Rio. I found the concept fascinating with a lot of potential, as there was definitely a market for people wishing to see this side of the city. Having been in Mumbai previously in 2003 doing some volunteer teaching, I knew about the slums (although not Dharavi at that point) and so decided to return to India in late 2004 with this idea in mind. It quickly became apparent that Dharavi was this fascinating place, with so much industry/ energy/ sense of community that it would definitely appeal to tourists. Krishna, who I met in 2003 when he was waiting my table in Colaba, took a little bit of persuading that tourists would find this place interesting (!), but soon saw the potential and we then formed the company in September 2005. Reality Tours, after a few problems, started in January 2006.

What’s the rationale behind your no-camera policy? Do some tour-goers bristle at this prohibition?
We started off asking customers to be considerate and respectful while taking photos. We got some criticism in the press for the tours being voyeuristic and having seen some of the photos in the press (of our customers taking photos), we re-considered this policy and felt that on this issue, they had a point. Also there were some comments from people who felt aggrieved that these “rich people were coming here, taking photos and then making lots of money.” We do find that the tour runs a lot more smoothly with the no-camera policy; there is no time wasted as photos are taken and people aren’t distracted wondering where is the best location to take a photo; the focus is on the tour and the information behind it. To be fair, most people are fine with this policy and understand it, although some people would like some places where photos could be taken.

To what do you account the growth in numbers of people interested in and taking your tours over the past two years?
First and foremost, the area is fascinating and more people have got to know about the tours that we run through word of mouth and publicity in the press and guidebooks. As a company, I think we provide a very good, professional tour at a very low price and people see that we use the money in a responsible way. Also, I think that this kind of tourism is becoming more popular; people are not just interested in the landmarks and sites of historic importance, but also in the day-to-day lives of people, particularly where this way of life is different to their own.

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On your website I spotted mention of possible redevelopment of Dharavi. What’s slated for Dharavi and how may such development(s)

affect the people living there?
Dharavi used to be on the edge of the city but is now in a prime location–near the airport and new business area. Hence the value of the land has increased enormously.

This has got the builders interested and so they want to develop the area. Under the scheme, housing will have to be provided to some of the families in the area although due to the financial crisis it’s still not clear when the scheme will go ahead. If it does go ahead, a lot of people will not be eligible for housing (about 50 percent of the people) and will have to leave, some will get bigger flats than what they currently have and some will get smaller. The industries will be more regularized– for example the polluting industries will be banned– and they will all be located in one particular zone.

In addition to your tours, Reality Tours and Travel offers market and village tours and even advice on filming locations. How are these offshoots of your tours faring?
The market tours have just started, but the few that we have done have been very popular. The village tours–run by my business partner Krishna–are great and have also been very well received by those who have gone on them; total numbers could be higher but cost and time to do the tours (2 days)

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deter a few. We’ve helped about five independent documentary makers and bigger TV production houses to film in India, and all have appreciated our transparent, honest and professional service.
Tell us a bit more about your community school. What classes are taught there? Do volunteers teach the classes?
We currently run English classes and computer classes there, all taught by people within the community. We have had volunteers but they are here on a temporary basis and we need a commitment for at least 3 months, which in most cases is not possible.
Anything you’d like to add?
We ask customers to fill in questionnaires asking them various questions about the Dharavi tour, including would they recommend it to others; nobody has said that they wouldn’t. I fully take the point that people who go on the tour are not an accurate representation of the public as a whole, but it’s difficult to form a complete opinion about our tour without actually going on it. We do try and be as transparent as possible on our website, which does allay many people’s fears.

After talking with Chris, we wanted to know what other companies conduct poverty tours. In Africa, tour operator Micato Safaris

offers an optional post-safari tour through Nairobi’s Mukuru District at no additional cost. Micato spokeswoman Jessica Brida told us about Bernard, who, along with his wife and four children, underwrote the construction and furnishing of the Harambee Center, a community center in Mukuru. He was inspired to help after visiting Mukuru with Micato’s Lend a Helping Hand of Safari program. Opened in June 2007, Harambee Centre serves as base of operations for AmericaShare’s Women’s Empowerment and Community Health Initiative, a cooperative of women organized and financed through micro-loans. The women make and sell handicrafts to support their families, plus they provide food for over 450 community members critically affected by HIV/AIDS.

Finally, poverty tourism isn’t a phenomenon cropping up only in Africa, South America, or Asia. Closer to home, activist and journalist Beauty Turner runs Beauty’s Ghetto Bus Tours

through Chicago’s notorious housing projects, including Cabrini Green.

She started leading the tours in 1996 and runs about 2-4 each month.

She sees the tours as an opportunity for people living in the projects to tell their own stories, tales often recounted and interpreted inaccurately by sociologists and others, Ms. Turner feels. Her mission, give voice to the voiceless, especially those displaced by the multi-million dollar redevelopment of the projects. She’s planning to start a scholarship program for low-income students. The tours run about three hours and cost $20/person.

IT wants to know what you think about poverty tours: Are they exploitative? Educational?

Helpful to expose those from the developed West to world poverty so they can do their part in ameliorating it? Have you been on a poverty tour? Where? What was your experience like?

Photos: Chris Way