How to be a curious but compassionate traveler
You can visit Emoya Luxury Hotel Spa’s Shanty Town in Bloemfontein, South Africa, and “experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment of a private game reserve,” according to Emoya’s website. “This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless internet access.” The thing is, these things make Shanty Town, well, something very different from a shanty town.
There is a demand for the shanty town experience, apparently, and so Emoya Luxury is supplying it. Nothing wrong with that. There’s also nothing new about poverty tourism—travel as a means of experiencing what it’s like to have very little, but within the embrace (and insurance net) of a safe, commercial venture, and easy access to an industrial-size tub of hand sanitizer. However, this becomes a problem when locals and their communties become props in your vacation.
This is on my mind because there’s a bar called Nomad in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that is dressing itself up as an adorable favela—a place where locals can stop by and feel like they’re in a poor neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, without all of the hassle of inescapable poverty. But poverty as a destination, as an experience from which you can leisurely check in and out, is a privilege. That’s true whether we’re talking about luxury shanty town getaways or a favela-themed bar in Milwaukee.
There is a right way to do this. When I was in South Africa, plenty of entrepreneurs in townships sought to get in on the act—as well they should have—by offering accommodation, tours, and insights into a side of South Africa that many non-black South Africans have never seen, let alone experienced. Curious outsiders were welcomed and invited in, and everyone, people on both sides, learned something about tolerance, history, or simply that many of us are more similar than we might think. It all felt very decent.
I think we can do better. So here’s a quick lesson: If you want to surround yourself with the trappings of poverty but no one around you lives in those conditions, the conclusion is simple: you are doing it wrong.
(h/t Gin and Tacos)