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Ghetto tourism

With a third of the Earth’s urban population—a full one billion people—now dwelling in slums, more and more youth in the current generation are coming up in ghettos, barrios and favelas. The voice of this generation is, of course, hip-hop. The world over, urban youth are claiming hip-hop as their own—their solace, their entertainment and their form of protest. The music gives voice to youth that are ignored by the education system and government, harassed by police and demonized by the media. Youth who live in illegal shantytowns, their very presence offensive to mainstream society.

Middle-class citizens in their own countries would never dream of venturing into these areas, but now tourists from abroad are flocking to slums in what’s being tagged “reality tourism.” According to an article in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper—which sites a recent report unveiled at the World Travel Market trade fair—“safe-danger” or “controlled-edge” experiences are the hot new travel trend. From Brazil to South Africa, tourists are embarking on guided tours of the world’s poorest neighborhoods.

I have no idea what to make of this. On the one hand, it seems pretty straightforward. It’s bizarre to tour a ghetto as if it were a zoo, staring at its inhabitants like they are some exotic animals. I can’t see how any genuine sense of connection could be forged. I imagine residents end up feeling more than a little resentful at the intrusion.

But then again, who knows? Maybe the tours bring much-needed revenue. Maybe they serve to break down the immense barriers of fear that separate these neighborhoods from the rest of the world. Maybe any opportunity to demonstrate that these places are full of regular people going about their lives—living, loving, working, having families, building communities—is worth something.

Even so, you have to wonder why these people feel the need to go to foreign countries to visit a ghetto. I’m pretty sure they could find one in their own country to get involved with. If people are so intent on connecting with the world’s poor, why go halfway across the world? Why not start by going to the zip codes in your own country that folks shun and avoid?

I’m willing to bet that some rapper somewhere in the world has recorded a track weighing in on these ghetto tours. Does any know?

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