Skip to content

Poorism vs. Tourism: A photographer’s take

July 2, 2009

Hop over to Scarlett Lion’s blog and read today’s Context Africa piece, about photographer Samantha Reinders. She’s been photographing Township Tourism in South Africa since 2004. Among other things, she points out that this kind of tourism isn’t static:

I have seen the industry at large, as well as the actual tours, change for the better since the beginning of my study. Both the practice of touring the townships (solely looking through the window of a tour bus) as well as the perception that these tours are exclusively voyeuristic tours of poverty has changed slightly….Tourists are treading more lightly in the neighborhoods they are visiting.

Samantha also went on her first tour thinking that this was a really bad idea:

Township Tourism, especially when it just became popular in the mid 90s, got really bad press in South Africa. And admittedly I was swept up in that. I thought the concept was horrible. A Brazilian friend in town was determined to do one of these tours and I went along with him and had a surprisingly good experience. So I decided to do a story on it and investigate the industry in a little more depth. As time went on I changed my mind about Township Tourism. Whilst there are definitely negative impacts on the communities involved when tours are run badly and mismanaged, I saw the positive impacts out way these in many cases. I left the project with a more 50/50 view of the industry.

People who do this stuff for a living–and do it well, responsibly, ethically–are quick to point out (to me anyway) that there are two ways of doing this. One is the sit-in-the-bus variety Samantha mentions. The other is cultural engagement: conversation, experience, exchange. The first one has been nicknamed “poorism” (get it? Tourism of the poor? Also convenient that it almost rhymes a bit with “voyuer”). The second has any number of names, though in my piece we settled on pro-poor tourism.

For the skinny on the pro-poor industry, there’s no better place to look than Harold Goodwin’s online resources. Goodwin is a professor at Leeds University, where he specializes pro-poor tourism (I think he might have coined the term? Can’t recall off hand, and I don’t have access to my research files, so don’t quote me). Goodwin can explain to you what pro-poor tourism is and how (and where) it works; helps you give back to the places you visit (responsibly); and will even offer you a degree in all this craziness.

This is one of the things that intrigued me in the course of my poorism/tourism article: the giving back prospect. On the one hand, I thought when I started the project, there’s the visceral revulsion many people have about this idea, and some good questions to be asked about both our motives and the consequences of our tour. On the other hand, does getting a sense of what poverty looks like make people more likely to give?

Josh Ruxin, who runs the MV in Rwanda, told me he hasn’t seen major donations come in after tours. But New Dawn said they get small donations all the time. The day I took the MV tour, weAnd it brought mouse pads to a school on the tour. A previous tourist had noticed kids were using tattered paperback books or tabletops as mousepads and so sent a dozen or so to the school. It turned out there was a whole computer lab built from the booty of tourism: flat screen desktops, software, even an internet connection (pricey in Rwanda!) had been donated by different people. Except for the dot-matrix printer, it was all pretty high-tech. (And yes, the lab is open to students in the other schools in the village.)

I talked to a lot of people who went on New Dawn’s tour of Mayange’s Millennium Village, and most of them also went elsewhere in Rwanda, contracting New Dawn as their travel agent of sorts. They all came home wanting to give back, and all of them did give back something. One woman started her own small NGO.

The point? Eh, I guess I’m repeating myself: It’s all, always, complicated.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 3, 2009 7:37 pm

    Thank you for your post. I’ve been waiting for someone to write a post that included both positive and negative aspects of this tourism. I especially appreciate your use of a photographer’s perspective. I feel that many people have disregarded the opinions and roles of media.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: