Slum tourism in the Philippines not for the faint-hearted

'This tour has really opened my eyes as it’s the first time I’ve seen poverty this close,” said a Dutch tourist after touring the slums of Smokey Mountain.

MANILA // For tourists looking to explore the Philippines’ capital city there are plenty of sights to keep them busy. The Spanish colonial fort of Intramurous, the world’s oldest Chinatown, Asia’s largest shopping mall – and the slums.

A growing number of visitors to Manila are choosing to take tours of the vast city’s most impoverished areas. The trend is part of a growing global movement of slum tourism, which tour operators say is a good way of showing the realities of poverty and critics say is a way of prostituting poverty.

As many as 4 million people live in Manila’s slums, either in cemeteries, shantytowns along the Pasig river or on top of a huge smouldering rubbish dump known as Smokey Mountain.

For those interested in this grimier side of Manila, Smokey Tours runs guided walks through the depths of these slums, allowing them to talk to the people and learn about how they live, eat and earn.

Slum tourism has a long history. In the late 1800s wealthy Londoners visited slum areas such as Whitechapel to observe how the other half lived. Modern slum tourism began in the 1980s in apartheid-era South Africa, where black South Africans showed people around their racially segregated townships. When apartheid ended, the tours continued and today up to a quarter of visitors to South Africa go on township tours, mostly in Soweto, South Africa’s biggest and most famous township area.

Since then, slum tours have popped up in the sprawling slum areas of India and in the favelas of Rio. The cities’ poverty-stricken neighbourhoods were popularised in movies such as Slum Dog Millionaire, Tsotsi and City of God.

Manila’s biggest slum, Smokey Mountain, a vast mound of constantly burning rubbish, recently reached the same level of fame in Dan Brown’s novel Inferno, in which he describes the area as the “gates to hell”.

Smokey Tours gives tourists a chance to visit the rubbish dump and meet the people who make their living from rummaging through and recycling the rubbish that ends up there.

It is not for the faint-hearted. Visitors tread through years of compressed mushy rubbish with the smell of food, dead animals and human waste wafting in the air, led by guides who come from the slum.

While it may seem to many like a form of voyeurism, Julia Kwee, the founder of Smokey Tours, says the visits are not meant to treat the place as a tourist attraction but to open eyes and minds to the other side of Manila. She has taken measures such as banning photography during the tours to give residents some privacy and not make them feel like they are in a zoo.

The concept was born in 2011 when she organised a walk friends and Manila residents in the slum areas where she volunteered. Afterwards, she mounted an exhibit of the photos taken and invited both the participants and the subjects of the photos. They were overjoyed at the exposure they received, and were eager to share stories about their lives with the guests.

“During the photo walk I noticed some residents showing the photographers around with pride and dignity and I realised, they do slum tours in India and Brazil, why not here too?”

Ms Kwee said slum tourism was gaining popularity as travellers grew tired of leisure and sightseeing trips and look for something different.

The company hires guides who come from and live in the slum areas, providing them with a livelihood. Some of the proceeds also go to a charity, Bahay at Yaman ni San Martin de Porres, which aims to improve the lives of disadvantaged children through livelihood training, education and health programmes.

“We get amazing reactions,” Ms Kwee said. “They get in touch to donate, they tell us they’re inspired to do something, and some people tell us that until now they still think about their experience and are looking at their lives differently now.”

Since they started in 2011, more than 500 people have taken their tours, from countries as diverse as Vietnam, Australia, the Netherlands, Finland, Japan and the United States.

“This tour has really opened my eyes as it’s the first time I’ve seen poverty this close. My friends back in the Netherlands don’t know how good we have it,” said a Dutch tour guest who wished not to be named.

However, not everyone believes it is a good thing to have the Philippines showcase its sprawling slums.

“Isn’t tourism is supposed to show the good side of a country? It might not be a good thing to show off Manila’s poor side and promote it’s bad side,” said Io Ramos, 32, a television producer and a lifelong Manila resident.

While the concept may have its naysayers, the growing number of people signing up for the tours shows that there is a curiosity and an interest and that it is growing.

For now though, Smokey Tours remains the only operator of slum visits in Manila.