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ghettotainment: problematizing cultural tourism

I just heard a great story about “LA Gang Tours” on All Things Considered.  Run by former gang members, the company takes tourists on a journey through South Central in an air-conditioned bus that stops at sites important to thug culture such as the local jail, a graffiti lab, and the LA river.  The idea behind the company is nothing new: a community’s attempt to harness the power of tourism (the hope of lots of money and a little increased awareness) to promote economic development in a place that is struggling.  From LA Gang Tour’s website:

“The mission of LA GANG TOURS is to provide an unforgettable historical experience for our customers with a customized high-end specialty tour. We will provide customers with a true first-hand encounter of the history and origin of high profile gang areas and the top crime scene locations in South Central, Los Angeles. Each tour bus for LA GANG TOURS will have a guide from the South Central areas who has gained hands-on knowledge and experience of the inner city lifestyle.

The objective is to create jobs for the residents of South Central, Los Angeles; to give profits from the tours back to these areas for economic growth and development, provide job/entrepreneur training, micro-financing opportunities and to specialize in educating people from around the world about the Los Angeles inner city lifestyle, gang involvement and solutions. This project will create opportunities to contribute to the economic health of South Central and the tools needed to access the American market.”

As often found in this kind of cultural tourism effort, the promotional materials combine the language of niche travel (luxury, experience, uniqueness) with the promise of exposure to an authentic, unseen, underground world.  South Central LA is not your average tourist destination, but LA Gang Tours is far from one of a kind: there have been stories recently about a new genre of cultural tourism, sometimes called “poorism”, that brings curious and adventurous travelers up-close-and-personal with people and places that would have been considered undesirable and unvisitable only years ago.  In Rio, for example, you can take favela tours from a number of companies that have operated since the 1990s.  And in India, you can visit the slums just as easily as you can visit the Taj Mahal.

The New York Times asked one of the relevant questions about “poorism” in a 2008 article: “tourism or voyeurism”?  Cultural tourism often bears this question worth asking, because its basic principle often is the idea that a traveler visits and gains access to unique aspects of everyday life in a foreign community.  You could argue that this kind of contact with other cultures or communities is essential for gaining insight and empathy for those whose lives are fundamentally different from our own.  As the article notes, “ignoring poverty won’t make it go away.”  However, it is equally easy to see how a tourist visit to a slum or South Central — complete with local guide and air-conditioned tour vehicle — is essentially a product that simply takes advantage of an impoverished community and packages it into a consumable novelty.  Because tourism is essentially a consumptive process, even if you are visiting “off the beaten path” communities you are essentially a voyeur on these tours.

There is another important question to ask about these kinds of tours, I think.  This, as in all kinds of cultural tourism projects, is about authenticity.  What are you seeing when you visit the ghetto in a van, even if your tour guide is is a former gang member?  Can you really see a favela on a tour?  Does simply the process of introducing tourism change a slum, and does it really promote economic development?  Are there ways that we could encourage tourists to acquire these experiences without consuming a tourism product?  And what is the ultimate result of the product — do travelers gain insight or understanding from these experiences?

In other words: is there a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in tourism?  Does the process of viewing or visiting a different culture, poor or not, ultimately change it?  Does it matter?  Are certain kinds of communities more vulnerable?

I have mixed feelings about these issues, certainly more questions than answers.  I love visiting the hard-to-visit areas of a place, but I certainly have felt inhibited from doing so in places where it might seem unsafe, or where I might stick out too dramatically.  Even still, I don’t think I personally would ever want to take a tour to these places, even if it mitigated some of my safety concerns.  I love that LA Gang Tours is a home-grown business, and it’s certainly a creative use of unique local resources to promote economic growth.  But tourism is hardly a cure-all for economic ills, and it seems to me that there is likely to be a pretty small market for gang tours in South Central.   I look forward to seeing more niche tourism like this developing in the future, and developing new ways to study and measure their effects.

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