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When travel slides from tourism to voyeurism by Pauline Frommer

When does a tourist’s interest in seeing an exotic culture devolve into something more insidious? I’m talking about an intrusive or perhaps even derisive gawking that can humiliate, or at least unnerve, local residents.

In short, when does tourism slip over the line into voyeurism?

Several years ago, when I was working on the first edition of my guidebook to Las Vegas, I discovered that a famous, legal brothel outside the city was offering free tours to both men and women. I took one and found it to be an anthropological eye-opener, a truly fascinating (if depressing) experience. I decided to include it in the book, as I thought the more adventurous among my readers might also find it of interest.

When I turned the manuscript in, I got forceful pushback from my editor. She believed that including the tour was catering to our readers’ prurience at best and would promote prostitution at worst. We argued the issue back and forth and eventually had to go to our publisher to make a decision. Worrying that the inclusion would give the books a bad reputation, he convinced me to leave out the tour.

To this day, I don’t know whether we made the right decision.

That was a travel writer’s dilemma. But there are important ethical issues that regularly confront both vacationers and travel industry workers. Below are three scenarios, all drawn from real life, that I think “walk the line” between tourism and voyeurism.

Scenario one: A luxury tour group is advertising that it will take Americans to Kumbh Mela in India, the most sacred of the Hindu pilgrimages. The ritual, which draws millions of worshippers, takes place for just one day, four times over a 12-year period. It’s attracted Western gawkers in the past because a sect of holy men, called the nanga sanyasis or Digambars (“sky clad”), do the traditional dip in the Ganges while naked. The luxury tour group promises a “down the rabbit hole” experience, leavened by “exquisite accommodations, some in a maharaja’s palace.” But should tourists witness a religious ritual that’s usually attended only by Hindus (and that could become a scene of irreligious gawking because of the nudity of some of the participants)?

Scenario two: A friend of mine witnessed a young couple getting married in an ancient church in Italy. The scene was peaceful and dignified until the bride and groom were hit with a paparazzi-worthy wash of flashbulbs and excited chatter. A group of tourists had arrived to view the church’s famous frescoes and began photographing the wedding. Is it OK for tourists to take pictures of private events like wedding ceremonies?

Scenario three: ”Slum tours” or “poorism” have become a staple of travelers’ itineraries in Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and India. In these countries, Americans and Europeans tourists pony up what would be the equivalent of a month’s salary for many locals to take a tour of the area’s favelas, shantytowns or even inhabited garbage dumps. Critics have long charged that these tours are exploitative, while defenders point out that many bring money into the community and give outsiders a better insight into the problems facing the nation they’re visiting. But is it ethical to take one of these slum tours?

What do you think? Do these experiences represent tourism or voyeurism? And should I have cut the brothel tour from my guidebook? Share your thoughts with other travelers in the comments section.


  • I think tourist would stay home if they were not able to look at the dirty laundry hanging in front of their face.

    Here is video with the same theme as this post from Manila, Phlippines

  • truly an eye opener....made to think over it

  • I have travelled each of a dozen times outside of tourist areas throughout mexico. Early on (20) years ago, I would travel freely to the villages with my wife or alone on day trips and we were as much a spectacle as what we witnessed. I would not think of that today. Not safe. I will say that in more than a dozen excursion we did not take our camera out unless we felt invited to do so. Locals can see that you are armed with a camera and will invite you to take pictures or a small gesture of your desire is always the right approach. It is just rude to pull it out and start flashing. I see it all the time. What is that about anyway? My travel is for the experience and to learn about other cultures and people.

  • Well, since you asked, I think your editor was right. Whether it's legal or not, prostitution is wrong and those tours are probably meant to lure people in for "services". Supporting the tours supports prostitution, which is a scourge.

    As for the tour to India or the slum tours: not sure if those are bad. I can see how they might be seen as gawking. But both sound like fascinating travel experiences and ones that will help visitors better understand the places they're seeing.

  • One the greatest travel books I've come across is called New Orleans on the Half Shell.  What I loved about it was that it said things like, "On Bourbon street you'll find a guy in a red beret playing multiple games of chess.  Play him."  He was there.  I played him (and lost very quickly).  It was a great little tidbit in a book full of tidbits that made the vacation memorable.  The book made you feel like a local.  

    I think that's missing in a lot of travel books these days.  Brothels, shrines, and slums are definitely "walk the line" tours.  But it depends on a variety of circumstances.  A brothel in Las Vegas, I would think, would be perfectly in keeping with a local's view of the town and should have been included in your book.

    I've encountered a wedding procession in the lobby of my hotel in Egypt that I couldn't help photographing given the spectacle and I've joined the tourist brigade to view a cremation in Bali (not only sanctioned by locals but advertised and charged admission.)   On the flip side, at the Louvre museum there are big bold multi-lingual signs that ask people not to photograph the Mona Lisa as the flash bulbs were slowly eroding the portrait.  That didn't stop the hordes.  One has to feel it out each situation and make a valued judgement.

  • Do I think voyeurism of most kinds should be avoided? Yes. I believe travel is about interpolation of cultures not sticking out and imposing upon rituals. However, if the institution/ritual/wedding party specifically invite visitors to come have a look, i.e. the brothel, than I think it's not wrong to include that in a guidebook. Obviously, something like the wedding party did not ask for visitors, yet the brothel does.

  • You raise some good points. Personally, I am not a fan of tours, but I think that a tour to see poverty is tasteless. If you want to see poverty first-hand, volunteer for an organization that helps the poor, don't go gawking. And what is the point- does it make you feel better to know you have money.

    To view other's religious celebrations is a privilege and one should not do the rituals unless one is a believer. If you do the rituals without the belief, it is empty and may cause offense.

    Re: brothel tours, mentioning they exist is not an endorsement. Some people may want to go on one, others not, personal choice. Excluding it from the book, in my opinion, was censorship.

  • Great piece, Pauline. I do think slum tourism can be done in ways that benefit locals and educates travelers. Eric Weiner wrote a column for us at World Hum about it and offered some tips, including leaving the camera back at the hotel. That's a good start.

  • I think it's one thing for travelers to "experience" these things and quite another for tourists to "see" these things. I think it's important to mention these things in tour books, but let people decide on their own whether they want to find a way to experience them. Ushering tour groups through slums is offensive, and people who happen upon private affairs should take the moment to enjoy the experience without feeling the need to capture it on camera.

  • People seem to have a crazy fascination for slums. Perhaps it is the "but for the grace of god, there go I" syndrome. But is it any different than a "moviestar homes" tour of Beverely Hills? Both are compelling for their extremes.

  • This is a tough one, but there's something to be said for experience as the best teacher.  One of the primary sources of our national xenophobia is the pervasive ignorance of other peoples and cultures.  In our public schools, there is no longer any requirement for foreign language study; through high school we are taught only western history, anything else is an elective.

    And even so, book learning has none of the impact of actual experience.  You can read about these places and situations all you want, but you're only scratching the surface. It's far easier to remain detached, in that politely impressed or mildly pitying way, without the dazzle of a spectacle in your eyes and the sound of ceremonial voices raised ringing in your ears, or the smell of unwashed bodies and desperation in your nostrils and the feel of unrelenting heat on your back. Actual experience, the use of your own five senses - there is no substitute.

    It's how we can truly learn about the world outside our cocoon, the 95% of the world not living in the U.S.  That said, like everything else, it always comes down to intention, doesn't it?  It's this tightrope you walk, as a tourist to some of these destinations: always, always mindful of the need to be respectful, observing from the side unless you're invited to come closer. And put the damn camera away until you're sure it's appropriate. The lens can get in the way of your actual experience anyway; that's been said for decades now.

    I think that respect is the key.  I think. It's a tough question!    

  • First, I think the decision to leave the brothel tour out of your book was perhaps not the "right" one, though that in itself is a word I'm not sure fits. Regardless of whether one believes prostitution is moral or not I think is beside the issue in the case you discuss. Around Vegas, prostitution is legal, therefore it is a part of the culture of the area. I think with clear messaging that you and the publishers are not endorsing participating in the activity, simply relaying a - to some - fascinating element of the local culture that most people have only a passing opinion of, could have made it work perfectly well. I do understand the sensitive issue that it is, however, and respect the decision. In that way, it may have been "right".

    Regarding the luxury Hindi experience, I think that crosses the line. To me, that's exploitation. I am an avid traveler and wish to see all sorts of cultural and local events, but I respect the privacy and sacredness of things such as this. My only caveat here would be that if the "sky clad" group invites this to help fund them, then the line begins to blur.

    With the wedding: come ON! Sure, it may have been held in a public venue, but seriously? Would *you* want your face plastered throughout some foreigner's photo album? I think it's just tacky.

    The same goes for the 'garbage tours': they too are tacky. I understand the potential economic gain, but I'm not sure I agree with the process.

    All in all, I think our own motivations for travel and tourism need to come second (or third, fourth?) to the needs and desires of the community being visited. It's like having a guest in your home. As the guest, you don't treat the host's house like your own - regardless of how effusive the host is about you doing so. As the guest, you respect the host's privacy, culture, and belongings. Travel should be no different.

  • see I believe if you go to simply "see" the poorest ppl/places just to say look what I did...then its def voyeurism and harmful to locals. If you go with the intent to document in a tasteful manner so you can bring back a story that "most" ppl dont know or understand then it offers awarness and can possibly offer a solution if the person creating the story promotes in properly. Either way its a very hard call.. I enjoyed your article..

  • This issue can also be observed at home. I lived for many years in the Southwest. Many pueblos like Taos have a love/hate relationship with tourists. They need the income but have deeply held cultural and spiritual beliefs that are based on privacy. I have seen visitors abuse the privilege that is extended.    

  • We travel a lot and enjoy meeting the locals. we have found the best restaurants, tours and snorkeling spots this way. We are not there to gawk but to get a flavor of the locale and the history that goes with it. Anything that people want to invite us to or include us in is wonderful.Anything private is well private. We conduct ourselves away like we live at home. If we wouldn't allow it here, we wont do it somewhere else. Everywhere you go you will find people and everyone wants courtesy, kindness and respect. Flashing money, abusing individuals, flaunting local customs, interfering with wildlife or in any way upsetting people is simply not our style. As a result, We  have had many wonderful experiences in the world that we would have not had if we had been "ugly".

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