As GOOD travellers we often seek experiences that enable us to get off the tourist trail to gain a more complete picture of the opportunities and challenges of the country we are visiting. We want to get beyond the glossy travel magazine locations to experience real life and to connect with local people. But are there ever occasions when this search for more authentic experiences can actually cause more harm than GOOD?
In a recent interview with Radio Live in New Zealand, we were asked this exact question with regards to slum tourism. Should GOOD travellers visit slums, townships or favelas? Who benefits if you do?
We reached out to Thulani Madondo, the co-founder and executive director of the Kliptown Youth Program for his opinion. The Kliptown Youth Program is located in the township of Kliptown in Soweto, Johannesburg - an increasingly popular location for township tours. Thulani himself was born in a one room shack in Kliptown without electricity or running water, so he understands the challenges facing his community. Through his work with KYP and his work as a Professional Soweto Tourist guide, Thulani has directly witnessed the benefits and problems of tourism in his community.
To begin, we asked Thulani what benefits township tours have brought to Kliptown. Thulani believes that tourism has benefited his community in many ways, including through exposure to the international community, educational opportunities, job opportunities and funding for non-profit organisations. He also believes that visits to townships can create important opportunities for tourists to gain a deeper understanding of the realities of life in South Africa through cultural exchange:
Tourists should consider visiting a township when they are in South Africa so that they have an opportunity to learn about the challenges and opportunities that people from the township face. This will create an opportunity for cultural exchange.
However, Thulani acknowledges that township tourism has also brought challenges to his community. A quick google search of "township tours Soweto" will give you an indication of the size of the township tourism industry in Soweto. What started as a few individual travellers being invited to visit townships has quickly developed into whole tour buses dropping in to visit townships. Thulani explains that this has led to dependency:
The problem that township tours have brought to Kliptown is dependency. Some of the guests always give money, food etc as soon as they get out of the bus without even talking to their local host. This has lead to a situation where sometimes there are people who do not want to go to school or look for a job because they are always waiting for the tour bus.
So as GOOD travellers, should you consider a visit to a township? Perhaps the first question to ask yourself is why you want to visit a township. If it is to learn and to contribute in some way to the communities you visit, how will you ensure that you achieve this? Similar to volunteering while you're abroad, it is essential that you find an organisation or tour company that shares your values. It can take time to research your different options and to ask questions to different organisations to establish why and how they operate. Thulani explains that one key thing to look for when trying to identify a tour company is whether the company is using local guides:
Tourists can identify genuine township tour companies through looking at a few basic things such as ensuring that those companies are using local guides to tell their stories - and what have they done to empower locals?
If you do choose to visit a township, we believe that it's also important to reflect on how you will behave during your visit. Homes in townships often offer little privacy for residents and by walking through a township you are therefore entering and witnessing people's lives in quite an intimate way. Will you take photos of people's homes and of the people you meet? If so, for what purpose?
In a recent article for our blog we talk about our role as GOOD travellers in ensuring that we take photos and use social media in a way that protects the dignity of the people and places we photograph. We share four key principles from Radi-Aid, which we believe are especially important if you decide to go on a township tour.
PRINCIPLE 1: PROMOTE DIGNITY
Promoting dignity is often ignored once you set foot in another country, particularly low-income countries. Avoid taking photos that demoralise or further propagate stereotypes. You have the responsibility and power to make sure that what you post on social media does not deprive the dignity of the people you interact with. Always keep in mind that people are not tourist attractions.
PRINCIPLE 2: GAIN INFORMED CONSENT
Respect other people’s privacy and ask for permission if you want to take photos and share them on social media or elsewhere. Avoid taking pictures of people in vulnerable or degrading positions. Specific care is needed when taking and sharing photographs of and with children, involving the consent of their parents, caretakers or guardians, while also listening to and respecting the child’s voice and right to be heard.
PRINCIPLE 3: QUESTION YOUR INTENTIONS
Why do you want to visit a township? Is it for yourself or do you really want to make a difference? Your intentions might affect how you present your experiences and surroundings on social media. Always ask yourself why you are sharing what you are sharing. Good intentions, such as raising awareness of the issues you are seeing, is no excuse to disregard people’s privacy or dignity.
PRINCIPLE 4: USE YOUR CHANCE - BRING DOWN STEREOTYPES
When you travel you have two choices: 1. Tell your friends and family a stereotypical story, confirming their assumptions instead of challenging them. 2. Give them nuanced information, talk about complexities, or tell something different than the one-sided story about poverty and pity. Use your chance to tell your friends on social media the stories that are yet to be told. Portray people in ways that can enhance the feeling of solidarity and connection.
To conclude, we would like to share Thulani's top tips for GOOD travellers who do decide to visit a township:
Tourists visiting townships should be aware that they are visiting financially challenged communities and they should not create dependency. They should also not make promises they won't keep because this makes life hard for the local host if those things are not delivered. Tourists should learn as much as they can without providing immediate solutions to locals.They should always ensure that they have local people with them all the times.
What do you think? Should GOOD travellers visit townships? And if we do, how can we ensure that our impact is positive? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.