People are still paying money to witness poverty

A recent 'Guardian' controversy revives an old question: Is it ever okay for tourists to gawk at the poor?


People are still paying money to witness poverty

A recent 'Guardian' controversy revives an old question: Is it ever okay for tourists to gawk at the poor?

The British newspaper The Guardian has long partnered with travel companies to offer its readers carefully planned holiday packages, from cruises down the Danube to hikes up Mount Toubkal. For a few brief hours in March, The Guardian advertised a partnership with Political Tours, which describes itself as “a travel company for people with a passion for international affairs.” Titled “Greece & The Euro,” the seven-day “educational and informative tour of modern Greece” would provide high-brow tourists with a glimpse of a country “in crisis,” far from its crystalline beaches and ancient ruins.

Greece has been struggling under a wave of austerity measures since the financial crisis of 2008. A decade later, unemployment stands at 23 percent, 15 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, and half of all households can’t afford heating. The country has also served as a gateway for hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees entering Europe, with 45,000 currently stranded in the country.

For the princely sum of 2,500 British pounds ($3,527), meals included, the tour offered Guardian readers a “chance to meet local families and discover how their lives have been affected by the financial crisis," in addition to spending several days on the island of Samos to learn about the refugee crisis. After meeting with local politicians, journalists, NGOs, and other “experts,” the promotion suggested, customers would come away from the tour with a sense of “the lessons that can be drawn for the rest of Europe.”

The response from the Greek public was swift and unforgiving, with angry Twitter users calling the trip “shameful” and “insulting.” “As if Greece hasn't been through enough without a bunch of Guardian readers trouncing around on safari,” one Twitter user wrote. In less than a day, The Guardian took down the advertisement, explaining to Al Jazeera that, “On reflection, we have now paused this project in order to reconsider our approach.”

It’s unclear why The Guardian — an award-winning newspaper that runs strictly left of center, and whose coverage of Greece has been both sensitive and rooted in Greece’s historical oppression — would think such a tour was a good idea in the first place. (The Guardian did not respond to The Outline for comment). But the idea wasn’t necessarily novel; Political Tours is one of a growing number of companies marketing a similar brand of well-intentioned, if controversial, travel.

Screenshot of

Screenshot of "Greece and the Euro" promotion on 'The Guardian.'

It starts with good intentions, the bedrock of do-gooder travel. Each year, over a million people go on guided tours of-low income areas in cities like Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg, and an estimated 1.6 million people spend $2 billion annually traveling as voluntourists, a combination of volunteering and foreign tourism, forking over money to companies like Rustic Pathways or Projects Abroad so they can teach English to Thai children or save sea turtles in Costa Rica. Full disclosure: at age 16, this author took a Rustic Pathways trip to Thailand non-ironically titled “Come with Nothing, Go Home Rich.” We were supposed to arrive with just one outfit and our medical supplies, and — after spending several weeks on a variety of community service activities, including building a well and teaching math — return home with a renewed sense of purpose.

In the best case, travelers leave feeling altruistically fulfilled, and locals feel assisted with dignity and respect. In the worst cases, such tourism can just cause more problems. Recently, the rise of foreigners volunteering in Cambodian orphanages caused a number of bogus orphanages to open, hoping to attract donations from wealthy foreigners. Misinformed parents began to send their children to orphanages, where the children were often exploited and mistreated and presented to tourists as orphans.

So when should travelers set aside their good intentions and just stay at home?

“For the potential volunteer, you have to really consider: am I going for me or am I going for them? Is it about making myself feel good or the local community?” Justin Francis, founder of Responsible Travel, a travel agency that focuses on giving back to local communities, told The Outline by phone.

It starts with good intentions, the bedrock of do-gooder travel.

Traveling to a foreign country for any kind of holiday is an economic privilege, he explained, and it’s important for tourists to acknowledge that power dynamic with respect to locals — particularly if the country in question is dependent on tourism. “I think there’s a whiff of colonial times in tourism in general as an entire industry,” said Francis. Even so, there’s definitely a difference between paying for a week-long holiday in a resort or a week-long tour of crisis-riddled Greece.

Crisis tourism — also known as dark tourism, disaster tourism, slum tourism, and poverty tourism — is nothing new. In 1890, Anton Checkov headed to Siberia and became the world’s first “gulag tourist.” At the turn of the 20th century, society New Yorkers trekked down to the Lower East Side to get a glimpse of the lives of tenement dwellers. People have been visiting ancient sites of death and destruction, like Pompeii and the Roman Colosseum, for centuries, and over 44 million people have visited Auschwitz since the former concentration camp opened to the public in 1945.

We seem to have an insatiable appetite for exploring the darker side of human history. Coupled with our unending desire for newness, this impulse propels the industry forward to offer increasingly brazen travel packages. The aptly-named Explore was the first UK tour operator to offer trips to the radioactive site of Chernobyl, where tourists could spend two days exploring the Exclusion Zone around the Number 4 Nuclear Reactor, which exploded in 1986, leaving behind a contaminated landscape.

“We have seen a rise in what we call ‘Dark Tourism,’ particularly amongst those who want to travel to places which challenge them and engage them,” the company’s head of customer relations, Margaret McEwan, told The Outline by email. “The images they take away are very poignant and, when combined with conversations with local people and guides, make for a very insightful experience. Many of our travellers want to get beyond ‘off the beaten track’ and to discover places with substance, and to experience something completely new.”

Slum tourism in Five Points, Manhattan, 1885

Slum tourism in Five Points, Manhattan, 1885

But unlike a trip to Auschwitz or Chernobyl, “Greece & The Euro” wasn’t just offering access to a physical place, full of history and meaning but empty of people. Instead, it was selling Guardian readers an idea based on unique access to information, garnered in part through conversations with vulnerable populations: refugees, Greeks living in poverty. In that respect, the premise was not unsimilar to the work that journalists do on a daily basis — identifying and interviewing individuals with specific knowledge or stories — albeit for the purpose of one’s personal edification and entertainment.

“What they’re paying for is what they believe to be exclusive information or access,” said Francis, the founder of Responsible Travel. “It’s a very old concept,” he said of the practice. “Bringing it into tourism is brand new.”

Not surprisingly, Political Tours, which partnered with The Guardian for the Greece trip, bills itself as “a travel company that takes people beyond the headlines.” Created in 2011 by Nicholas Wood, a former New York Times and BBC correspondent, Political Tours runs trips all around the world, from Colombia (“discover what lies ahead for Colombia and FARC”) to the United States (“explore the seismic impact of Trump’s time in office”).

“The idea is not to be voyeuristic,” Wood told The Economist in 2014, ahead of a Ukraine trip exploring the Euromaiden Revolution. “Rather it is aimed at people with a genuine political interest and those keen to learn more about the situation in Ukraine by conducting some first-hand research.” According to the agency’s website, the tours are meant to have the flow and information-heavy experience of a documentary. (Political Tours did not respond to The Outline for comment on the Greece trip.)

We seem to have an insatiable appetite for exploring the darker side of human history.

On the surface, it might seem that being a crisis tourist isn’t so different from watching a documentary; but when you’re watching a film, you don’t physically implicate yourself in the lives of other people. Unlike most journalists and documentarians, crisis tourists aren’t trained in how to deal ethically with sources, and won’t disseminate that information in the same way. Unpaid sources talk to journalists in the hopes that sharing their experiences will lead to some form of change or resolution. No matter how well-intentioned or genuine a tourist might be, their experiences while traveling become relegated to a private bubble of knowledge, confined to one’s personal edification or dinner party fodder.

Of course, there is a merit to such tourism, at least as far as the tourists themselves are concerned. “Stepping into the shoes of those who have first-hand experience at the destination brings reality to the story and creates empathy with those affected,” Kate Kenward, executive director of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) told The Outline.

If the goal is to foster empathy, one organization doing things a bit more ethically is Extend Tours, an educational organization offering five-day educational tours through the West Bank. Billed as a tack-on to Birthright, Extend is “designed to uncover and confront the difficult questions that surround the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and to foster “respectful and inclusive conversation among participants from all backgrounds.” Participants spend time in the West Bank and talk to a range of Palestinians and Israelis. Unlike other political tours, it’s free — a factor that makes it more palpable.

Ultimately, determining how ethical or not it is to go on a crisis tour can only be done on a case-by-case basis. “There’s that dangerous assumption that we know best, [but] the most important voice is that of the person or community being visited,” said Francis. “What becomes difficult is that there’s not always a single voice.”