What happens when global inequality becomes extreme enough to be exotic? One result is “poorism,” which brings residents of the developed world to visit slums, favelas, and shantytowns as tourists. Eric Weiner explores the ethical dilemmas:

From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the townships of Johannesburg to the garbage dumps of Mexico, tourists are forsaking, at least for a while, beaches and museums for crowded, dirty — and in many ways surprising — slums.

David Fennell, a professor of tourism and environment at Brock University in Ontario [says it] is just another example of tourism’s finding a new niche to exploit. The real purpose, he believes, is to make Westerners feel better about their station in life. “It affirms in my mind how lucky I am — or how unlucky they are,” he said.

Not so fast, proponents of slum tourism say. Ignoring poverty won’t make it go away. “Tourism is one of the few ways that you or I are ever going to understand what poverty means,” said Harold Goodwin, director of the International Center for Responsible Tourism in Leeds, England. “To just kind of turn a blind eye and pretend the poverty doesn’t exist seems to me a very denial of our humanity.”

While the feel-good side of tourism is usefully satirized in Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, I’m in favor of this type of travel in general. Spending 10 weeks in Lima, Peru the summer after my first year of law school fundamentally changed my view of the world. It’s very difficult to have a sense of what living on a dollar a day is like unless one has actually seen a shantytown in person. It certainly helps one understand why “contributing to widening divide between rich and poor” is one of the social sins recently highlighted by the Vatican.

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