Inspiration, Luzon, Philippines

The 2 Faces of Slum Tourism in Manila

Reading is a way for me to de-stress.

I read books, publications and of course, I am an avid follower of really amazing bloggers. One of my favorites is Sab, a travel blogger from Germany who decided to quit her job to fulfil her dreams of exploring the world.

Her story is quite inspiring, and what I like about her the most (very subjective me) is her love for the Philippines.

One night I checked her blog, and was happy to see she has a new post. And it has a profound title, Smokey Mountain: A Walk Through The Slums Of Manila, Philippines.

I knew this place well.

Slum Tourism
Credit: Smokey Mountain II

I visited this slum in Manila a number of times when I was still working in the media. This place is filled with stories of survival, inspiration and hope.

As I start reading, memories flash back.

Slum Tourism Manila

 Credit: Smokey Mountain Manila

Manila’s Urban Poor

The exact place is called Sitio Damayan in Tondo, Manila or what they call Smokey Mountain 2. The original Smokey Mountain is located just near the place, it was shut down by the government in the 90’s in an attempt to provide better living condition for the people. But sadly, the government program did not turn out as expected.

The dumpsite still continues as well as the shanties of the people coined as the poorest of the poor.

Today, the place is still filled with garbage, a dumpsite where people make a living through scavenging and charcoal-making.

The air is filled with dark smoke because of charcoal production, it is just unbearable to think of how people, especially kids survive in this place.

“Pagpag” is also prevalent here. Pagpag is a Filipino word for leftover food from fast food restaurants scavenged from garbage bins. These are being re-heated or re-cooked (frying) by some people here…to eat.

Pagpag literally means to “shake off”, it means shaking the dirt off of the leftover food.

This will make you realize that the urban poor, people who live in the slums, have very few options even when it comes to the basic needs like food.

As I finished reading Sab’s post, and viewing all the photos of the kids in the slum, I was surprised.

I was surprised to have this weird feeling I just couldn’t explain.

I thought Sab joined a volunteer work in the area, or maybe she has a friend who works in an NGO and they would meet someone there.

It’s possible, because believe it or not, no matter how unsafe the place looks like, you can go there anytime. You would be surprised how people can be very friendly. It’s relatively safe.

But it was actually through a Slum Tour. Please don’t get me wrong, I am still a fan of Sab, nothing has changed.

I just wanted to validate my feelings after reading her blog post.

It was also a realization for me, that the concept of Slum Tourism which is highly debated around the world is now here in my country. The practice that is widely popular in Mumbai (thanks to movie Slumdog Millionaire), Brazil and Nigeria is now here in the Philippines.

And for my fellow Filipinos who don’t know about this, this is the time for you to be informed.

The tour in Smokey Mountain is being organized by Smokey Tours, a group of people who charges 750 pesos (16 USD) per head for those who want to join.

They said that “ALL” proceeds from the tour goes to their foundation which helps the people there.

Below are some of the tour’s “highlights:”

  • *Pagpag: Observe and understand the leftovers that are considered sumptuous to the residents living in the area
  • *Recycling Area: See how many of the residents’ scavengers earn a living
  • *Residential Areas: Wonder through the area and visit somebody’s house

I wonder what do the tour guides tell the visitors when they observe their fellow locals/Filipinos eat pagpag. Just thinking about it makes me sad.

Slum Tourism

 Credit: Reuters

Slum Tourism Advocates

People who support slum tourism said it promotes social awareness.

A chance for someone who grew up in a wealthy country or community to see how the poorest of the poor live, igniting a sense of gratefulness, and to appreciate life more.

And hopefully, triggered something in them to help.

Some says, this is also good for the local economy. Operators of Slum Tour in Manila is claiming that all their proceeds go to their foundation.

Another good example is the Favela Tours in Brazil. The place that was once wracked by crimes is now one of the most talked about tourist destinations in Rio De Janeiro, and more help has been also given to the community.


The Other Side of Slum Tourism

To get a glimpse on how people from the slums feel?

You may read this beautiful article from New York Times written by then student Kennedy Odede from Nairobi, Kenya.

He said he was just 16 when he first saw a slum tour in their area… he wrote.

“I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly, a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on… Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.”

That statement was just so powerful that I don’t need more explanation to get the message across.

For those who are joining slum tours in Manila, I think you would feel that people there love your presence as they always smile at you.

Sadly, this is just the nature of the Filipinos. We are very accommodating to visitors, especially to foreign tourists.

But deep down, you would never know what they truly feel as you watch them eat pagpag, or take pictures of them or their kids while picking up garbage.

You would never know what they feel, when a guide intrudes their home to show you they don’t have a decent toilet.

I can’t say I wholeheartedly understand what the people from the slum feel, because I don’t live there.

But for someone who comes from a simple family, as I grew up… It’s painful.


Slum Tourism Manila

 Credit: World Watch


Manila Slum Tour And Beyond

Looking at the Smokey Tours website, they now have a “No Camera Policy” for their slum tours. I think this has an underlying meaning, that people behind this tour also understand. You do not take pictures of people living at their worst conditions.

I think the best way to answer the question if Slum Tourism is right or wrong. Or if is it worth it – is by putting yourself on their shoes.

Imagine this, If you were born in a slum, do you want strangers to just go to your house ask some questions and take your picture? Think About it.

As Kennedy mentioned in his New York Times article,

“Slums will not go away because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them. There are solutions to our problems — but they won’t come about through tours. “

I am certain that Slum Tourism will continue here in Manila, and I don’t have control over it.

But there is one thing I am sure of – there are other, better ways.


How about you? What can you say about Slum Tourism? Feel free to comment below.


  1. Rexel Agapay

    One of the saddest things I have read about in a while. Remember in the old days when there were freak shows displaying human oddities? Jus like that, it is so insensitive. Thanks for the info. First time I have heard about this happening in our country.

  2. A balanced perspective on an important issue. “Awareness” is all well and fine, but does it justify making people feel worse about themselves? And does awareness even lead to any real change, or is it like the facebook groups that ask for “1 million likes to stop puppies from being sad”? Awareness must be a means, but too often people see it as an end.

    1. jontotheworld Author

      Wow Dan. Just Wow.

      I must admit it took me some time before I’ve finally gotten your message. That’s deep man. 🙂

      Sometimes awareness is not enough, we have to take action. Thank you for that. I just realized something because of your comment.

  3. Abraham

    Hi Jon,

    I’m from Nigeria, and I understand how you and Sab feel.

    I don’t live in the slum, but I can’t just stop thinking about it. Every. Single. Day.

    I sobbed over this while reading. Because you’ve touch me deeply. And Sab, the most.

  4. PPeople make use of other people’s miserable life to get rich. As one of my professor’s said in my MA before there are a lot of people who gets rich just by talking about poverty and this is an example.

    Is social awareness enough? What happens after “rich” people tour this place? I just can’t believe that there are people who would use the slum areas as a business opportunity. This is just too much!

    Thank you for informing me about this! Glad I got to read it from here.

  5. When we talk about tourism, it always shows how beautiful a place is. And I never thought that “slum tourism” has been existing for years already until seeing this post. It’s quite depressing to see such view but it’s totally an eye-opener for everyone who’s been living a comfortable life.

  6. i never thought that theres a so called slam tour, this is really a great post! and slam tour is a great idea for people not just to see other peoples sitiution but as well as to think that we are way luckier than this people. A waste for us could be a gold in their hands.

  7. I’ve read Sab’s post re: Smokey Mountains and I don’t think think that it’s a bad publication on how a part of the Philippines looks so helpless and left out. It may be a small help to show others how badly the people from Smokey Mountains need help from people that are blessed.

    1. jontotheworld Author

      Hi Yvonne 🙂

      I did not say that Sab has made a bad representation of that part of the Philppines. Again, I love her works.

      My issue is about the concept of sum tourism itself. Organizing tours to observe and take pictures of our fellow Filipinos while eating pagpag or their situation as a whole. It’s just that it was through Sab’s post that made me realize a lot of things about slum tourism that triggered me to create this post.

      Thanks for dropping by.

  8. My boyfriend and I visited Smokey Mountain a couple of years ago for his documentary and to volunteer at the Gawad Kalinga center with our Norwegian and British friends. I only used to see their condition on TV. All the kids were really nice. You do make good points. If I were one of those kids in Smokey Mountain I wouldn’t approve of people documenting my life. However I don’t think of it as completely wrong, we just have to know when not to cross some lines. My foreign friends knew about Smokey Mountain through the media, and if they haven’t seen pictures or videos they wouldn’t have chosen to volunteer there. It’s helpful at some point.

  9. If dump site will transfer to other area, a possible like smokey mountain place and same issue will occur although different faces you will see experiencing/doing Pagpag.

    Hoping for our government improvement and help. 🙂

  10. The idea of selling slum area vicinity like this Smokey Mountain through tourism sounds absurd and it connotes exploitation. And it is not good for it is an utter insult to the PH government for that matter. Whoever adapts slum tourism here in the country has to be blamed. Though an income is generated from that business scheme and it is intended to help out those residents in the said slum area, it does warrant amelioration of the standard of living of the poor there. It is a big question mark for ST!

  11. Reminds me of ‘poverty porn’ in some of our Pinoy indie films. I have mixed feelings towards slum tourism. I felt bad when I went to Cambodia a few years ago when some tourists were complaining that the kids of Tonle Sap were asking for $1 to have their photo taken. I gave them money not because they asked me to, but for me not to feel guilty. I don’t want them to feel robbed in a way.

    That’s the reason why I have issues with some photographers who just take shots and share the photos online without asking permission from their subject. I do take photos, but I try my best not to post delicate ones. This is a nice post, Jon 😀

    1. Hi Mica!

      Been reading your blog for quite some time and I am delighted that you dropped by and commented.

      Yes I agree. Slum Tourism is really a very sensitive issue. And I am just in awe that there are a lot of Filipinos who do not know that slum tourism in Smokey Mountain existed. Proof are some of my friends who read this one. 🙂

      Just have an idea right now, what’s really the stand of our DOT (dept of tourism) about slum tourism? Maybe I should send theam an email. haha

      Thanks Mica! 🙂

  12. jontotheworld Author

    Hi Becki,

    I totally understand. You have no idea how long it took me to think deeply about my views and emotions about slum tourism before I can actually write this.

    In the end, I told myself I just need to express my views. That yes, there is a better way if our purpose is to help people from the slums.

    If there is a need to experience the slum life, there are also better ways… you can volunteer, donate, share your time.

    Thanks Becki and I really appreciate your tweet about this post. 🙂

  13. Beautifully said. The concept of ‘Slum Tours’ is still something I struggle with – the concept of ‘peering’ into poverty. I’ve seen a lot written on the Mumbai slums, but in the context of showing people the inner workings of the slum and the businesses that thrive there and how the community runs in this really unique way. They too have a no camera policy. But what you describe here? There’s no need for tourists to go and watch, and pity and pry. Why not simply donate money to charities who work here, who provide resources and educational drives etc? That’s how I view best practice here, not where the money from tourists is partially spent on admin and promo. So yes, I agree, there is a better way. Everyone deserves to keep their dignity.

  14. You are absolutely right, but then again I can understand people’s curiousness. We don’t really have slums in Europe and sometimes seeing is believing and then hopefully taking some action. As for photography issue, I think Sabrina documented it quite well and brought light to an issue that too often is forgotten in our world.

    1. jontotheworld Author

      Hi Marta,

      Yes, you have a point. I do respect those who patronize slum tourism, that’s why I really made it a point to be carefu when I wrote this one.

      And I also made it clear that I still love Sab’s works nothing has changed.

      It’s just that her post has ignited something in me that I really wanted to share in this blog. And that is a mark of a great writer or story-teller when you affect your readers. That’s what happened to me.

      I hope by the time she reads this I wanted to make it clear that I love her works and I appreciate her love for my country. 🙂

      Thank you Marta for dropping by. 🙂

      1. Sab

        Thank you Jon, it took me a while to find this article but I’m happy to see this now.

        I totally agree, slum tourism is something bad and it was never my itention to say “look how awful they live” – i had a permission to take photos because of my documentary, but i’m happy to see that “normal visitors” are not allowed to take photos of the people.

        I wanted to raise awareness and after this blog post tons of people asked me where they can donate and how they can get in touch and help.

        For me it was important to see the slums and document it, it was something beyond my imagination and i wanted to share it. most of my friends who saw the post had a reality check afterwards.

        anyway, i totally understand your opinion. Slum tours should not turn into a business.

        Cheers from berlin 😉

        1. jontotheworld Author

          Hi Sab,

          Thanks for dropping by. You don’t have any idea how hard it is for me to write this one. Primarily because I don’t want you to look bad and all because I genuinely love your works and I appreciate all your love for the Philippines. But to top it all, I just had the feeling that I really have to write this one. You know that feeling that if I would not write about this, nobody else will.

          Because the fact that even the mainstream media here is not even digging deeper into this issue and taking this so lightly like a normal travel or tour.

          I really appreciate your being open about this. And I am happy that your post made some impact to your friends and readers. I genuinely respect that, and thank you for also respecting my take on this.

          As what I’ve said, nothing has changed. I am still your fan, and Pinoys love you. 🙂


  15. Excellent post. Slum tourism makes me feel uncomfortable. I always think about how much I would hate it if rich people came and gawked at me living my life – let alone if I lived in such terrible conditions!
    I was never quite sure if that was just me putting my own world view onto these other people. As you said, smiles are commonplace in the photos. I feel a bit more sure in my views after reading this post and the New York Times article.

    1. jontotheworld Author

      Hi Melanie,

      Thanks for dropping by. Honestly, I’ve been thinking for a while If I really wanted to do this post. Had some second thoughts.

      But just recently I stumbled upon a video of my favorite writer, Jeff Goins. He said it is okay to express your view, your world view about the world or about a certain issue when you write.

      Just like you, I am also sure about my view about Slum Tourism especially in my country. 🙂

      I appreciate your comments.


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