I didn’t know at the time that “slum tourism” was what I was doing, but my first experience of this phenomenon was in 1993, at age 13, visiting various kinds of neighborhoods around San Miguel, El Salvador, with my uncle, who is Salvadoran. He wanted to impress upon me and my younger sister the vast disparities in lifestyles experienced by rich and poor in that country; we were very sheltered, relatively wealthy white kids. Our experience in El Salvador was life changing, and one of the reasons that I am an avid traveler, unafraid of going almost anywhere or meeting anyone, a former journalist, a seminarian, and a border dweller.
Some question the very premise of slum tourism, calling out the ethics of privileged people paying to witness others’ misfortune and suffering. Experts, however, point out that slum tourism, for better or worse, is almost certainly here to stay. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.