Poorism is a form of travel, originating as a term in the year 2000 to describe tours of some of the poorest and most economically deprived areas of the world. People may take a poorist tour that lasts for a day or so, or some even pay to stay in very impoverished neighborhoods for first hand experiences of some of the lowest living standards in the world. Critics tend to call these tours poorism to term them derogatory. Others suggest that tours of areas of extreme poverty raise social consciousness, and further, some of the tours donate profits to charities that support the people in the areas toured.
Poorism tours take place around the world, and not just in third world countries. You can, for instance, tour New York neighborhoods in the Bronx and East Harlem, in Belfast, Ireland, or in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Such tours take people into the heart of impoverished pockets within large and in some cases prosperous cities. These tours may awaken the mind to the devastation of long-standing poverty, the plight of immigrants, or the effects of war.
More exotic poorism tours might visit places in India, Brazil, parts of Africa and other locations. Such vacations, if they can be called that, will usually include visits to more affluent areas and traditional vacation opportunities of the area a traveler plans to visit. Certain tour companies establish good relationships with local residents in the slum areas, so that visitors can not only view impoverished areas but also talk to the locals. Professionals that work in areas on tours, like doctors, might give special information regarding the residents.
One such company, Reality Tours and Travel, offers what they call slum tours of Dharavi, India, which they refer to as the largest slum in the world. On their website, Reality Tours and Travel does mention that 80% of profits do go to local charities. The company has gotten increasingly more popular, especially since a 2007 article in Smithsonian magazine discussed their tours, and the trend of poorism at length.
Visits to impoverished areas are not exactly new. To engage charitable interests, people were often invited to visit slums in their own urban areas. This was a common feature, mocked by Charles Dickens, in his 1852 novel Bleak House. Several energetic women have “causes” where they try to reform or moralize the poorest members of London’s society. Dickens’ take on these charitable visits were that they sometimes denigrated the poor and overlooked compassion and empathy. There was something of a voyeuristic quality in such tours.
The same argument is leveled against modern poorism. Is it merely a voyeuristic expedition to see people in the lowest walks of life? Is there thrill in seeing starving children or living conditions that are specifically the worst you could imagine? It’s hard to know if these charges are valid, or if poorism serves a more altruistic purpose. Regardless of its inherent controversy, this tourist trade is growing quickly, with many agencies springing up to offer tours of impoverished areas. Questions remain as to whether such tours will evoke world change or will further distance those who can afford to travel from those who cannot afford decent living conditions or enough food.