Cities like Rio de Janeiro, Manila, and Mumbai are characterized by extreme inequality. That’s facilitated the rise of so-called slum tourism, in which guides take out-of-town visitors to a poorer region of the city for stops at social enterprises, small businesses, and maybe a school.
These tours showcase local ingenuity and put much-needed money in the pockets of the working poor. Or they dehumanize and exploit marginalized people living in poverty.
One such tour was featured in a travel column in the Toronto Star last week, but this one showcases a particular area of Vancouver.
“The man is dancing and watching his reflection in the window, humming to music only he can hear and oblivious to the small group of visitors walking past,” it begins. “We’re making our way through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, widely considered the worst neighbourhood in Canada.”
The tour is offered by Jenn Potter. It’s described online as “socially responsible” and designed to highlight “companies that give back to the community”. It’s priced at $185 for one person, $195 for two people, and $275 for a group of three to 10.
In a telephone interview, Potter told the Straight her tour was misrepresented in the Star. She argued it was born of a genuine interest in the concept of social enterprise.
Potter recounted how she once led tours from Gastown to Chinatown, skipping over the low-income neighbourhood in between. Over time, she found herself making more stops in the Downtown Eastside at small businesses like East Van Roasters. The coffee and chocolate shop owned by the nonprofit Portland Hotel Society employs at-risk women who live at the nearby Rainier Hotel. Potter said she grew increasingly interested in that model and eventually designed a tour to showcase Roasters and others organizations like it.
Another stop is Save on Meats, where diners can purchase tokens, give them a person in need, and that person can then return to the restaurant and trade the token for a meal. Karma Teachers yoga studio is a third stop. It offers low-income people classes by donation.
“People are sending me stuff misunderstanding that I am exploiting people’s poorness or their vulnerability, and actually it is totally the opposite,” Potter said.
A sample of people who live and work in the Downtown Eastside elicited mixed reactions.
Sarah Blyth is a former parks commissioner who works with the street vendors who congregate on the south side of the unit block of East Hastings Street. She told the Straight she worries the activity sounds like “poverty tourism”.
“In any other neighbourhood, people coming around to look at people would seem a bit strange,” she said. “Would you go to Kerrisdale or Point Grey and go walking around looking at people watering their plants?”
On the phone from East Van Roasters’ at 319 Carrall Street, manager Shelley Bolton said she’s seen Potter bring groups into her shop and change the way they think about the Downtown Eastside.
“Being able to teach people a different way to look at the Downtown Eastside is positive for everyone involved,” she told the Straight.
Others, like the Carnegie Community Action Project’s Maria Wallstam, dismissed the tour outright. She argued the businesses Potter visits aren't aimed at serving low-income people and therefore only add to pressures of gentrification.
“These kinds of places like East Van Roasters and these social enterprises that she’s visiting, sure, they hire low-income people, but they don’t really serve the community otherwise,” Wallstam explained.
Karen Ward, a board member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, called it “the worst kind of voyeurism”.
“It objectifies and commodifies people who are in extreme distress,” she said.