Travel Research: Slum Tourism in South Africa

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Today I would like to focus on the topic of slum tourism in South Africa, also known as township tourism. Slum tourism is defined as the practice of travelers visiting poor urban areas of the global South to view its impoverished conditions and understand more of the lifestyles of local inhabitants. Organized slum tourism tours exist around the world in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Cairo, and Mumbai. Slum tourism is a controversial issue and I have written about the different viewpoints and potential pros and cons of this practice in a previous article.

slum tourism in South Africa

This post will specifically focus on the research of a fellow researcher and blogger, Jeanett Andrea Søderstrøm who runs a blog called The Gipsy Giraffe, writing about her travels, passions, life, and research. Although born in Norway, her holiday travels to South Africa and a township tour in Cape Town made her wonder about the impact of slum tourism and led her to later study this issue from an academic point of view.  Since that time, Ms. Søderstrøm has received a Master’s degree in Responsible Tourism Management in which she completed her final research on township tourism in Cape Town. If you want to learn more about slum tourism in South Africa, read on!

A Brief Overview of Slum Tourism in South Africa

While slum tourism is not a completely new phenomenon, organized slum tours have become steadily more common and popular since the 1990’s. Currently there are an estimated 40 to 50 township tour operators in Cape Town alone and it is estimated that at least 25% of international overseas tourists to South Africa take a township tour. Slum tours in South Africa are specifically called “township tours” because in South Africa the term “township” generally refers to impoverished and underdeveloped urban areas. The division and segregation of people according to race during Apartheid—the political system that ruled in South Africa from 1948 to 1994—led to very segregated townships with most colored people being forced to live together in impoverished conditions.

Ms. Søderstrøm’s research focuses on Langa in Cape Town since it is currently one of the most commonly visited townships during the commercialized tours. Small and located near the center of Cape Town, Langa is the oldest township in South Africa, created in 1927 as an area for non-Whites to live (often forcibly) in racially-segregated South Africa—a forerunner to Apartheid. The majority of residents in Langa are Xhosa people (former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was a Xhosa-speaking Thembu person) and the level of unemployment and poverty is extremely high.

The Research

Research study: Søderstrøm, J. A. (2013) Responsible practice for township tourism: An exploration of Stakeholders’ opinions, commitments, actions and expectations in the township of Langa, Cape Town. Master’s thesis.

The current research takes a three-prong approach in gathering qualitative data from tour operators, Langa residents, and government officials. The researcher interviews four tour operators of township tours in Langa and then takes three township tours by these same operators. She also interviews 39 Langa residents, including 17 residents of homes where household visits occur during tours. Lastly, the researcher also interviewed four people involved in responsible tourism planning within the local government in Cape Town.

slum tourism in south africa slum tourism tours

Research Findings

In the course of her research on township tourism in Cape Town, Ms. Søderstrøm developed a list of 14 guidelines to explore what have been suggested as ways to ensure that tours are operating as responsibly as possible, particularly emphasizing social and economic benefits for the local communities. Below are each of these guidelines and the findings related to the research on each one about whether it is being adhered to by the tour operators participating in the research project.

1. Walking over driving tours

Why?: Walking tours can allow for more meaningful connections between tourists and residents, allow tourists to purchase products/make donations, and help avoid the more voyeuristic nature of looking at people from a car or bus.

Findings?: Overall, most companies offer walking tours, although some companies do offer tours that are partially or primarily driving tours. Locals reported that they would like it if tour operators facilitated more conversation and meaningful interactions with tourists such as more time for conversation, more visits to local businesses, and more time to stay in homes such as stopping to have a chat over tea.

2. Small rather than large tour groups

Why?: Smaller groups can more easily visit homes and business and feel less intrusive to residents. It also can help facilitate more interaction between tourists and the locals and between the tour operators and the tourists.

Findings?: Most responsible companies do appear to be adhering to the responsible practice of providing small group tours rather than large group tours.

3. Provide behavior guidance to tourists

Why?: For most travelers, they have never been on a slum or township tour before and do not know what to expect. For many, this may be their first time encountering such poverty and living conditions and may not know how to behave, especially when entering people’s homes. It is the responsibility of the tour operators and guides to ensure that tourists do not make a negative impact on the local community by communicating proper dress codes and behavior, as well as encouraging  curiosity about residents’ customs through general respectful interaction. Many tourists also have ethical concerns about whether or not to book such a tour.

Findings?: Some companies provide general guidelines concerning behavior on their websites and some also talk about ethical concerns tourists may have. Most tour operators give some guidance as well about “good behavior” during the tour.

4. Photography policies

Why?: Obviously, most visitors want to take photographs or videos to remember their tours. However, being constantly photographed can be very annoying and feel quite intrusive by local residents. Many residents do not mind being photographed and visitors should ask residents before taking photographs of actual people.

Findings?: Companies appear to be providing photography guidelines at the beginning of tours to tourists about asking residents before taking pictures of them. Some also advise tourists to not photograph children. While all tour leaders appear to be providing guidance, some tourists may be disregarding this advice and still taking photographs for their albums without asking. Among the interviewed residents many claim it can be annoying in certain situations, hence is it crucial that guides always repeat what is expected from the visitors in this regard.

5. Provide fair salaries to guides

Why?: Providing a fair salary to tour guides and other staff avoids exploitation of cheap labor in impoverished communities, gives back to the community, and generates staff goodwill that hopefully also leads to more satisfied clients.

Findings?: Unfortunately, there are no good guidelines of what constitutes a “fair salary” and many guides are not well paid. Most of the guides depend on tips and were even observed discouraging donations to local residents on the tour in order to attempt to receive a larger tip themselves from tourists at the end of the tour.

6. Tipping policies

Why?: To encourage professional behavior by guides, tour companies should communicate that tipping the guides for good services is welcome. This should help supplement their typically small salaries and result in further professionalism among guides. Most importantly this could also lead to guides allowing more of the tourist donations to end up in the hands of the visited communities.

Findings?:  It was found that most companies do not communicate a tipping policy to tourists, as tour operators reported that most tourists decide to give tips anyway. However, tour operators saw the information about unfair redistribution of tourist donations as interesting and may have not previously considered that this issue was related to having an established tipping policy.

7. Provide compensation to visited households

Why?: Most tour companies visit at least one local household during their tour and this is generally one of the promoted highlights of the tour. These households should therefore be compensated for their time and value as a tourist attraction. Such compensation not only makes sense from an ethical business perspective but also avoids exploitation of the local residents.

Findings?: Very few tour companies have formal agreements  concerning compensation with the local households they visit. Most receive nothing  (or very little) directly from the tour operators. For most they only receive donations or tips left by tourists; however, most guides do not appear to talk about or encourage donations so tourists are often unsure whether it is appropriate to leave donations or not. Sadly, some local households reported that they used to receive regular visits from tours, which provided tourist tips and/or food, but for unknown reasons, the tour operators have stopped visiting them which has made their economical situation even worse. Even if tour operators do not directly provide money to households, regular committed donations of food, clothing, school supplies, etc. would significantly help these households.

8. Promoting local purchases

Why?: One of the ways that tourists can help the local communities they visit is by spending money within that community. These may include buying local handicrafts, purchasing local services, staying at local homestays, or eating in local eateries.

Findings?: While it seems that almost all tour companies provide an initial opportunity to purchase crafts at the beginning of the tour, most tour companies do not promote local purchase throughout the tour. Many seemed to avoid lingering around local businesses, making it more difficult for tourists to stop and buy something. Tour operators said they did not want the tours to feel too commercial, had to adhere to their schedule, or said that tourists were not very interested in purchasing goods. Locals want tourists to visit their businesses, but felt that getting tourists to their stands daily is difficult since they have very little power over the tourists groups which are directed by the tour guides.

9. Provide ways tourists can donate to the local community

Why?: Many people take township tours in order to learn more about the culture of the people, and after taking these tours many have a desire to give back to the community. While purchasing items or services may be one way tourists can give back, some may instead want to donate money to local community projects (e.g., schools, construction projects, churches). This is another way that tour operators can provide to those tourists who want to give back.

Findings?: Some tour operators discuss this as an option during tours, but often only when tourists verbally express interest. Some tour operators reported that they did not want people to see the township as a charity and do not mention this; however, tourists themselves often expressed gratitude for being given information about how to donate if they would like to do so. It should be noted that some residents whose homes are visited during tours stated that they felt that encouragement of donations to local schools or other projects has hurt them by leading to decreased tips and donations to their household.

10. Involvement/donations by tour operators

Why?: An ethical and responsible tour operator should give back to the local communities through community involvement or donations, and many tourists may in fact expect this of slum tourism companies.

Findings?: Whereas some tour operators do become directly involved and donate to local projects, others reported that they are a business and give back indirectly by bringing tourists into the township. Among those who did report giving back, it was not always clearly stated or communicated for tourists to find this information, nor was it proven to the researcher.

11. Provide evidence of responsible claims

Why?: Given that many tourists have ethical concerns about these tours, companies should clearly state and detail what specifically they do to give back to local communities and how the community benefits. Such practices provide transparency and help better inform potential clients.

Findings?: While many companies do responsibly give back, whether indirectly or directly, to the local communities, these claims are often vague and not well communicated.

12. Create linkages with local enterprises

Why?: The more connections that slum tourism operators create with local companies, the more widely they can benefit the community.

Findings?: Most tour companies do try to include at least one local business in each tour, whether it be a local dining establishment, craft store, or homestay. However, more of such local businesses could be utilized to not only help benefit the community but also enhance the tourist experience of the local culture.

13. Seek residents’ feedback

Why?: It is vitally important that to maintain responsible tourism practices, tour operators seek feedback from residents and that they continue to seek feedback over time. This not only helps avoid exploitation of the local population, but enhances good will, cooperation, and local participation.

Findings?: Tour operators all claim to seek resident feedback; however, it is clear from interviews with locals involved in the visited homes that tour operators and guides often have poor communication or unclear agreements with the local residents. Some residents reported that they had questions, requests, or suggestions for tour operators, while others seemed apathetic about actually communicating their opinions and wishes to the tour operator or guides. This suggests that residents may not feel empowered to voice their opinions and it is the responsibility of the tour operators to ensure that residents, especially those involved in the tours, are given a voice.

14. Assure that all tour staff have the same responsible aims

Why?: The majority of township tour operators in Cape Town report that they follow responsible tourism criteria; however, while having such criteria set in principle is great, these also need to be clearly communicated and followed by all staff members, particularly the guides.

Findings?: While most interviewed companies claim to be responsible, the actual practice depends largely on who is guiding the tour and the company’s emphasis on staff cooperation, transparency, and reporting.

What do these Findings Mean?: Conclusions of the Research on Slum Tourism in South Africa

This research supports the complex nature of slum tourism in Cape Town, South Africa. While there are certainly benefits for the local people and most locals feel that things are better with tourism than without it, tourism companies do not appear to be doing as much as they could to make an impact on local communities. While tour operators in general appear to be friendly, professional, and adhere to general ethical policies, they seem more apathetic regarding issues such as encouraging donations to local hosts, providing fair pay to guides, and promoting tourist purchases and donations.

The issue of not compensating local households visited during tours was highlighted as a particular problem as some of these households get up to ten visits on average per day—often with no compensation! There appears to be a number of ways that tour operators in Langa, Cape Town can better improve their responsible tourism practices and the first step would be to facilitate better communication with local residents. Further, more support and oversight is needed by the local government, which although they encourage township tours and have created policies on responsible tourism, they do not seem very involved in enforcing such policies.

How Can I Find Out More about Slum Tourism?

If you have specific questions about this research project, you can connect with the researcher, Jeanett Andrea Søderstrøm, by visiting her blog The Gipsy Giraffe. Here you can find ways to contact her as well as more articles on slum tourism such as this article on slum tourism.

Want to know more about slum tourism in general? You can read my prior post that gives a good general introduction to slum tourism and specifically describes research on slum tourism in Cairo, Egypt. Stay tuned for future posts that will present the view of actual travelers who have taken slum tours in Brazil and a post that will try to present a guide (informed by research) for tourists in how to decide if they should take a slum tour and how to choose the most responsible tours.

slum tourism in south africa, slum tourism

 What do you think about slum tourism in South Africa or slum tourism globally? Have you taken a township tour in South Africa or taken a slum tour in another country?