New analysis of TripAdvisor reviews from tourists visiting impoverished urban areas in South Africa suggests they regularly misrepresent townships as places of great hope, which creates a skewed understanding of poverty in the global South.

Analysing over 400 TripAdvisor reviews for two townships (referred to regularly as ‘slums’) based outside Cape Town (Langa and Imizamo Yethu), the researchers from the University of Bath found that visitors too often gloss over many of the daily challenges people living in these areas face in favour of positive images depicting those living there as ‘poor but happy’.

Writing for the journal Geoforum, they suggest that tourists’ accounts can lead to a dangerous reframing of the debate about urban poverty with areas re-categorised as ‘slums of hope’ where inhabitants have agency, choice and resilience to change their circumstances. They argue this can depoliticise some of the key structural problems which stand in the way of development.

In recounting their experiences on TripAdvisor, tourists regularly produced optimistic descriptions, describing townships as productive, vibrant cultural spaces, rich in non-material assets, inhabited by happy and hard-working people. Typical responses included:

We learned so much, and it was wonderful to be in the community, to experience the friendship, the solidarity – to see a new future being built.

The level of poverty that these people live in is unbelievable. But everyone here has hope and aspirations of getting a house and work. Truly amazing people.

There are hardworking people in the township who are making life better for themselves.

However, the researchers suggest such glib depictions often obscure the inequalities observed between poor residents and wealthy tourists, and they depoliticise issues like poor sanitation or infrastructure. Instead of empowering those living there, they say, these representations can perpetuate and conceal many of the daily problems people living in these areas face.

Across 452 TripAdvisor reviews analysed, only four reviews remarked on water, sanitation, or sewerage within townships. Only two communicated the fact that the vast majority of residents in these settlements live without toilets or running water inside their homes. Overall, reviews represented residents as satisfied with their circumstances, with several reviewers even remarking that they thought the children had better lives than those from privileged backgrounds.

Lead researcher Dr Monique Huysamen from the Department of Psychology at Bath explains: “Over recent years slum tourism has thrived across the world, fuelled by growth in international travel, rapid urbanisation, and of course deepening levels of global inequality. It now forms part of an ever-growing ‘alternative’ tourism industry, which includes practices like ‘ecotourism’ as well as ‘voluntourism’ – a popular gap year activity for young travellers from the global north.

“These ‘attractions’ are marketed as cultural experiences offering socially responsible alternatives to mainstream mass tourism. They are marketed as an opportunity ‘do good while on holiday’. On the other hand, this kind of tourism has come under fire for supporting the commoditisation, romanticisation and consumption of poverty, and slum tourists are often are accused of engaging in ‘poverty tourism’ or a form of ‘poverty porn’.

“While township tours, if operated by local residents, may potentially offer certain economic benefits for these communities, we found that tourists’ reviews lead to a skewed representation of poverty and its causes, certainly in South African townships. Issues like inadequate sanitation – a topic which has been deeply politicised in recent years – are too often glossed over, and the need for radical social and infrastructural change invisible from their TripAdvisor reviews.

“With much international travel currently on hold due to COVID-19, now is the time to rethink and revaluate our own future tourism practices. The pause in travel allows us an opportunity to think much more deeply about how such tourism might be reinforcing and exacerbating patterns of inequality and poverty. Where we do visit destinations where residents live in abject poverty, we need to think carefully about how we retell and represent these experiences to others, for example on social media, so that we are sure to paint fuller picture of their lives and the challenges they face."

For tourists who have had international travel plans disrupted this year, including those undertaking gap years who had planned to go on such tours, the researchers suggest that this is an opportunity to instead read widely and study the political, historical, social and economic issues which affect these communities and continue to maintain global inequalities. By doing so, they argue, they will develop a much richer understanding of these complex global challenges and how they might best be addressed, they say.

Further information

  • 'Slums of hope: Sanitising silences within township tour reviews' is published in the journal GeoForum. DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2020.01.006

  • Image: The striking image above of Imizamo Yethu, by photographer Johnny Miller, is part of the Unequal Scenes project and depicts the stark inequality between Imizamo Yethu, and the surrounding Hout Bay residential area.

  • Unequal Scenes locates the dividing lines in the world’s most unequal societies using a drone. The project began in 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa and has since spread to 6 countries across the world (South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Mexico, India, and USA).

  • Johnny Miller is a photographer, journalist, and founder of Unequal Scenes and africanDRONE – a pan-African NGO. He is based in Cape Town, South Africa, and is interested in provoking conversations on inequality through his art. Johnny is a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the London School of Economics, and a News Fellow at Code For Africa.