Slum tourism in the Philippines

Eliza Raymond
Jul 23, 2023

Can slum tours be GOOD?

Slum tourism is a controversial topic. Slum tours have been criticised for commodifying poverty and turning marginalised communities into tourist attractions. In many ways, it would be easiest to therefore simply recommend not visiting slums at all. But slums are complex places and slum tours have the potential to be a positive, empowering experience for both slum residents and visitors IF visits are organised appropriately.

So when Juliette Kwee of Smokey Tours reached out to us about her work, we were interested to learn more and to find out why she had started an organisation focused on offering slum tours in the Philippines.

Ms. Kwee founded Smokey Tours in 2014. Her goal was to empower people from underprivileged communities and to give visitors to the Philippines the opportunity to see another side of Manila.

We want to show everyone that there is another side of Manila by offering safe and eye-opening tours. And at the same time, we also want to empower, educate and train people from underprivileged communities in Metro Manila. We want to help people who want to help themselves as well as to raise awareness about social issues and concerns, inspire individuals to bring about societal change, and use proceeds to improve the living conditions in underprivileged communities.

Ms. Kwee is the first to acknowledge that her vision for Smokey Tours is big, and challenging:

Smokey Tours hopes to bring societal change in our communities. It is a huge goal, and we work in small steps. It is not easy, and sometimes things go smoothly, sometimes not at all.

Yet despite the challenges she has faced with establishing Smokey Tours, and no doubt will continue to face as the company grows, Ms. Kwee has seen many positive results from the tours, and this keeps her going. The social impact and sustainability section of the Smokey Tours website shares some of their achievements to date - from establishing a health center to a community library.

Ultimately, Ms. Kwee believes that slum tourism is about creating an opportunity for learning and connection. She wants to challenge visitors' perceptions of slums and to empower both residents and visitors to live meaningful lives.

Slum tours give you insight about the contrasts in life in a certain place. And it is not always only sunshine, you will experience a lot of hardships. In the end we can all learn from each other. Learning by getting to know each other. I think it starts there.

How to find a GOOD slum tour

Despite the benefits that slum tours can bring both residents and visitors, the concept of 'touring' a slum still raises some red flags. Ms. Kwee explains that this is why 'tours' in the Smokey Tours logo has been crossed out. She explains that what they are offering is an experience and an opportunity for learning and connection, as opposed to a traditional tour.

So if you're considering visiting a slum, how can you find a company that cares? Ms. Kwee believes that the key is to find an organisation that is focused on empowering the communities you visit and protecting their rights.

Having a GOOD company that operates Slum Tours is really a must. You should look for a company that promotes sustainable tourism. A company that respects and supports the rights of the local people.

Identifying a GOOD company can be challenging as GOOD travellers temporarily visiting an area, so we encourage you to check the tour company's policies and to ask lots of questions. For example:

  • Do you allow photography? Smokey Tours does not (in order to protect the privacy of the residents).
  • What happens with the tour fees you pay? Smokey Tours donates 100% of profits back into the community.
  • Who leads the tours? Tour leaders from Smokey Tours are from the areas visited and are given training to enable them to earn a good livelihood.
  • Do you have a sustainability policy? Smokey Tours does, and they are committed to a variety of GOOD initiatives to minimise their impact on the environment as well as educate their tour guests.

Dos and Don'ts when taking a Slum Tour

If you do decide to take a slum tour, Ms Kwee recommends the following Dos and Don'ts for GOOD travellers.

  • Do: respect the people and their unique traditions.
  • Do: approach the tour leader if you have a concern or question.
  • Don’t: give money or candy to children in the slum.
  • Don’t: go anywhere without asking permission from your tour guide.
  • Don't: take photos during your tour.

Final reflections

One of the most important recommendations we make to all GOOD travellers is to be thoughtful, empathetic, open-minded and reflective. Nowhere is such an approach more important than when you are visiting people in their homes and communities. Ms Kwee says it best:

The most important thing that you need to remember when doing a Slum Tour is to become more sensitive in your actions. It may be called a tour but it doesn’t mean that you can just enjoy and be insensitive to what the residents may feel. Remember that a slum tour is not just an ordinary tour. As you see in our logo, the word Tour is erased, because we always believed it is an experience. A mutual experience, so poverty gets a face, people have names and it is the first step for many people to get to know each other.

Want to learn more? Check out our interview with Thulani Madondo, the co-founder and executive director of the Kliptown Youth Program located in the township of Kliptown, Johannesburg. We asked him if GOOD travellers should visit townships - and who benefits if they do. He shared his experiences of the benefits and challenges of township tourism as well as tips for GOOD travellers considering a township tour.

Have YOU experienced a slum tour? Please share your reflections and recommendations in the comments below.

July 23, 2023
5 min read