Back in the Victorian era, a bit of an odd practice emerged among the London well-to-do. Affluent residents filled with curiosity would visit the dodgy East End to look around, often accompanied by a police escort. As such excursions became more and more popular, the term “slumming” made it into everyday British lexicon.  

Today one can take a guided “slum tour” of impoverished neighborhoods in many global cities, from Rio to Mumbai to Detroit. Such tours have plenty of critics, of course. Journalists have referred to the practice as “poorism” or “poverty porn.”

There are also researchers who specialize in contemporary slum tourism, and for them, the practice of outsiders visiting a city’s poorest areas is hardly cut and dried. “It’s like ‘normal’ tourism; there are both good and bad elements, and the issues are largely the same,” says Ko Koens, a lecturer at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.  

One example can be found in Norrebro, a neighborhood north of central Copenhagen often associated with crime and Middle-Eastern immigration. There, tours offered by second- and third-generation immigrants complicate the pejorative view of slum tourism.

Two years ago, a group of students from SUNY New Paltz contacted the RessourceCenter Ydre Nørrebro, or Resource Center Norrebro District, which offers programs for neighborhood youth such as Danish lessons and kickboxing teams. The American students had plans to travel to Copenhagen as part of their studies, with the aim of learning about Danish approaches to working with young people in urban, higher-crime areas.

“We introduced them to some of our youth, who showed them around and told them about what it’s like to live and grow up in Norrebro,” Maria Kudsk Borghus, RCYN’s volunteer coordinator, tells CityLab. “The tour was such a success—for both the visitors and the youth—that we started offering the tours whenever we received a similar request.” As positive feedback flowed in, the RCYN decided to make the tours a “real project.” Today, the center operates a so-called “ghetto tour” every week or two.

A “ghetto tour” guide takes a group around Norrebro. (Resource Center Norrebro District)

It’s a good sign that the guides for Norrebro’s tours are residents themselves, rather than people from other areas, says Koens. “This normally means there is less of a chance that the residents will be used for outside profit.”

Visitors from a wide variety of backgrounds have taken the Norrebro tour, from tourists to politicians to businesspeople. The youth guides narrate their quotidian habits as they walk through the neighborhood, showing such spaces as where they live, hang out, and go to school. “We want people to see another side of these kids and the area,” says Borghus. “Usually you only hear about Norrebro and its youth if there is a problem. The tour hopefully breaks down some social barriers.”

While this sounds rosy, there can be drawbacks. “There’s a positive feedback loop on sites like TripAdvisor,” says Fabian Frenzel, a lecturer at the University of Leicester and author of Slumming It. “Visitors speak about their good experience on the tour, declaring that their eyes have been opened.”

What can then occur, according to Frenzel, is a triggering or initiating of gentrification and rising housing costs. “It’s rarely that tourism on its own does this,” Frenzel says. “But it does play an important role—so much so that some of the favelas in Rio have experienced radical gentrification.”  

In Norrebro, there are already signs that one area is indeed gentrifying, with art galleries, wine bars, and vintage clothing shops in evidence. Still, says Frenzel, “ninety-five percent of the time, the tour operators are trying to dispel negative myths. In that sense, there is a limited chance of [a slum tour] being problematic.”