Slumming it

Slumming it
Slumming it

Growing numbers of travellers are adding some of the world’s most deprived urban areas to their holiday bucket lists – but what are the implications for travel insurers?  

Growing numbers of travellers are adding some of the world’s most deprived urban areas to their holiday bucket lists – but what are the implications for travel insurers, asks Robin Gauldie

Insurers are increasingly having to deal with their clients venturing into districts that have made the transformation from no-go zone to visitor lure – although theft and violent crime often remain rife, policing is minimal or non-existent, and diseases such as typhus and cholera are much more common than in mainstream resort areas.  This trend started in Rio de Janeiro, where guided tours of the favelas that cling to the hillsides far above glitzy Copacabana and Ipanema took off in the 1980s. Then, when the end of apartheid kicked off South Africa’s tourism boom in the 1990s, Cape Town and Johannesburg got in on the act. In the 21st Century, visiting districts variously known as townships, barrios, favelas, or – to use the politically correct term – ‘informal settlements’ – is a significant part of the travel business in Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean. “In South Africa, hundreds of tourists visit the famous Johannesburg township of Soweto every day,” write Elizabeth Monroe and Peter Bishop in a research briefing for Tourism Concern. “Similar numbers travel with the 40 to 50 companies now offering tours of townships in Cape Town. In India, Mumbai’s famous Dharavi slum is firmly on the tourism trail. And in Brazil, hundreds make daily visits to favelas in Rio de Janeiro.” Slumming it is nothing new. More than a century ago, London’s deprived East End lured the bourgeois Victorian thrill-seekers, voyeurs and do-gooders. As The New York Times reported in 1884: “When it became fashionable to go ‘slumming’, ladies and gentlemen were induced to don common clothes and go out in the highways and byways to see people of whom they had heard, but of whom they were as ignorant as if they were inhabitants of a strange country.” An old impulse, then, given a new coat of paint.


Today, most of those engaging in slum tourism are from the developed world, while the deprived urban districts they visit are in the developing South. Many such areas are characterised by picturesque squalor, but also by theft, violent crime – often gang-related – and disease. Violence in townships like Mitchell’s Plain and Gugulethu has made Cape Town the murder capital of Africa, with more than 50 homicides per 100,000 residents. For comparison, the US city of St Louis, Missouri had the highest homicide rate in the US at 60 per 100,000 in 2015, according to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. In Mexico City, Tepito – a labyrinthine street market neighbourhood nicknamed ‘Barrio Bravo’ (the ‘fierce neighbourhood’) which has long been notorious for drug use, prostitution and petty crime – has become a destination for walking and street theatre tours that aim to introduce tourists to the realities of local life and culture. That said, not all ‘slum’ areas are hotbeds of crime. More than half of Mumbai’s 20 million people live in such areas. In the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, a foreign couple visiting a city slum return to their car to find their belongings have been stolen, along with the vehicle’s wheels and engine. In reality, according to a pioneering slum tour operator, Reality Tours and Travel, the crime rate is lower and most areas are cleaner in Dharavi, the metropolis’s best known ‘slum’, than in many other parts of Mumbai.

Insurers are increasingly having to deal with their clients venturing into districts that have made the transformation from no-go zone to visitor lure

Phil Silvester, head of PR and travel safety expert at World Nomads, an Australian insurer that specialises in more adventurous forms of travel, concedes that the favelas of Rio de Janeiro ‘can be horrifically violent places’ on occasion, but says that outside of ‘infrequent clashes’ between police and local drug gangs ‘the favelas are actually safer than many parts of the city’: “Locals say the same man who would mug you on Copacabana will shake your hand with a smile in the favela.” During last year’s Olympics, UK and US newspapers eagerly reported gangs of thieves from Rio’s favelas descending on the city’s tourist areas to prey on visitors. In one incident, two Swedish tourists were reportedly robbed at gunpoint and a third briefly abducted after they stopped, against the advice of their driver, to photograph the Complexo do Lins favela. So are slum tour groups really walking into the lion’s den? And how can individual visitors gauge the level of risk involved in such visits?

A calculated risk?

At the time of writing, there appeared to be no specific advisories from government organisations such as the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) or the US State Department against travel to any of the urban destinations discussed in this feature, so visiting either as a group or independently would not void an insured’s cover against theft, robbery or assault. But the messages from government sources are sometimes mixed. The State Department, for example, does not advise against visiting Trench Town in Kingston, Jamaica, the birthplace of Bob Marley and a favourite destination for his fans. However, the US Department of Trade’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security advises US Embassy personnel and private citizens to avoid travel to ‘notoriously high-threat areas of Kingston’, specifically including Trench Town. Jamaica’s official tourism portal also urges caution, noting that the area suffers from ‘very high rates of violent crime’: “It would be advisable to visit the Trench Town Culture Yard [the area’s keynote attraction] with a guide who knows the area and not to visit at night time.” In Brazil, the FCO notes ‘very high levels of violent crime’ in favelas, describing them as ‘unpredictably dangerous areas [which] remain high risk given the violence within them’. It notes that tourists are ‘still at risk’ even if visiting with organised tours, but stops short of specifically advising against such visits. The FCO also briefly advised against visiting any Kenyan slum areas following outbreaks of violence during the country’s 2015 elections. That advice has since been withdrawn, and tours to Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, continue (though the relatively prosperous Eastleigh district, a commercial and residential area in the city centre, remains off-limits to visitors due to the suspected presence of al-Shabaab terror groups).   “As more people travel from the first world to poorer places, the more temptation they put in the way of bad guys and people struggling to get by,” says tourism marketing and crisis management expert Tom Buncle, whose company Yellow Railroad advises developing destinations in the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, including Namibia, Cameroon and Gabon. “I don’t see why it should be a higher risk and attract a higher premium than regular tourism. Safety is a relative concept. Busy city streets in most capitals are probably a higher risk. To load such tours with a higher premium would seem to me to arise from prejudice rather than a calculated risk assessment.”

not all ‘slum’ areas are hotbeds of crime

So far, the insurance sector seems to agree. “There could come a time – if it was causing a significant number of claims – that we might consider putting ‘slum tourism’ as a specific item, but it’s not an easy matter to just add it to the list,” says Phil Sylvester. “We’d need to negotiate with each of our underwriters, then a lot of work has to go into defining it and setting various parameters. By way of an example, it took many years of unusually high numbers of claims for us to move skiing to an optional extra. Contracts had to be changed and pricing structures developed.”

A developing world

At the moment, slum tourism is almost entirely run by specialists who have local knowledge and local contacts. Virtually all visitors travel in groups, often in mini-convoys of jeeps or minibuses, with local drivers and guides. Most such specialist operators make a point of ploughing some of their profits back into community programmes, so there are strong incentives for locals to make sure their visits do not encounter problems. That could almost be seen as paying protection money – but it works. However, a conceivable source of concern for insurers in future might be the ‘normalisation’ of visiting slum areas, encouraging some adventurers to visit on their own, without the protection and expertise of a local guide or operator. That could put them at higher risk of being robbed or assaulted. Standard advice from governments, tourist offices and tour operators is generally to avoid venturing into notorious slum areas independently. As Sylvester says: “Although the idea of paying to tour a poor community might feel uncomfortably exploitative, entering the favela alone isn‘t recommended. A local guide will be able to point you towards the best places for food and performance and can talk your way out of trouble if it arises. In the meantime, we’re confident we have any eventualities from ‘slum tourism’ covered in two ways.” Firstly he explained, World Nomads has an extensive library of safety content for such destinations, with lots of advice about keeping to an organised tour and leaving such items as cameras out of sight as much as possible. Secondly, he says, the company expects its insureds to take note of the extensive information it provides, alongside the warnings offered by government entities like Australia’s Department of Trade and Foreign Affairs, and act accordingly. “There’s a catch-all with our policies,” Sylvester explains, “which in essence says: if you put yourself at unnecessary risk, or if you do not do everything reasonable (and in your control) to limit your exposure to risk, we may not pay your claim. If there’s some indication that the insured has taken an unnecessary risk, we’ll ask more questions and do our own investigations. It’s a blunt instrument (if you’re a fool we won’t pay!) but we try to educate our customers about travel insurance and the obligations they enter into when both parties make the contract.” ⬛