As organized tours of poor areas grow in popularity, it raises questions of whether “poverty tourism” is educational and philanthropic, or voyeuristic and exploitative.

From Mumbai to Rio to New Orleans, organized tours of poor areas have grown in popularity. And so too have ethical discussions on whether “slum tourism” or “poverty tourism” is educational and philanthropic, or voyeuristic and exploitative.

In some cases, these tours offer travellers a glimpse of life in an area they might not visit otherwise, often because of logistics or safety concerns. For example, Nairobi-based Kibera Tours offers trips to what it calls “the friendliest slum in the world”. It also happens to be the largest in East Africa. Esther Bloemenkamp, co-founder of the company, said that travellers come “to see the differences from the way they live themselves. In the tour we show them proudly the way the people in Kibera live. We show some good examples of the community.”

But is “slum tourism” profiting off the poor? Tricia Barnett, former director of Tourism Concern, a United Kingdom-based charity that fights tourism exploitation, told BBC News that slum tours can be unfair if the community isn’t involved.

“You have to see where that money’s going,” she said. And that can be tough for a vacationing tourist to discern. “When there are middle men involved and the locals have no control -- whether you’re visiting poor hill tribes or people in a slum -- they get nothing out of it whatsoever,” Barnett said. “But tourism can be fabulously well managed and it can be an exchange of culture.”

Marcelo Armstrong, who started Favela Tour in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, said the term “poverty tourism” is too limited to describe what the tours are about. “Favelas are far more than a poor place where the poor people live,” he said. “It is indeed a place with many social problems, but also very representative of our society and culture.”

His goal, he said, is to offer tourists “a much better/deeper understanding of favelas as well as of Brazilian society” and to “confront some stereotypes”.

Many tour operators say they give back to the communities they visit. Armstrong’s company gives money to a children’s education centre, which mentions its collaboration with Favela Tour on its website. Bloemenkamp said her group, a nonprofit, creates jobs in Kibera for tour leaders and gives money to children’s projects. Reality Tours and Travel in Mumbai set up its own charitable organization, which runs a community centre, kindergarten and cricket program in the slum of Dharavi, founder Chris Way said.

The companies also limit picture-taking. Way has a “strict no-cameras policy”, he said. Armstrong said photos of people and private residences aren’t allowed, and Bloemenkamp said guides will only allow tourists to take out their cameras at certain times.

Still, such well-meaning rules may not be enough to assuage everyone’s reservations. For example, Susan Patterson, from Washington, DC, reluctantly joined friends on a favela tour in Rio in 2010. While she said she learned a lot about the history of the community and came away with “a much more positive view of favelas”, she still had mixed feelings about the tour. “[Was I] being exploitative?” Patterson said. “I’m not sure it wasn’t.”

As for the residents, the reaction in Mumbai’s Dharavi has been generally positive, Way said. “We have had some residents complain about us bringing tourists here, but when we explained to them what we have done, then they have generally been fine,” he said. “Many are happy that we are bringing people through ... helping to dispel the negative stereotypes that people have about Dharavi. And they like how the tourists behave … friendly and with respect.”

Since there is no central rating for “poverty tour” operators, travellers who are interested in picking a responsible tour should ask questions about the size of the tour group and how much the community is involved in working with the company. Harold Goodwin, professor of Responsible Tourism Management at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK, wrote about his experience in the Cape Town, South Africa township of Khayelitsha, with a tour operator that was well-known in the community. “We stopped several times along the way and talked with local people who were evidently pleased to see us,” he said.

But while he was there, chatting with a local woman, a large tour bus drove by, filled with a horde of picture-snapping tourists, as if, the woman remarked, they were on safari. “The issue is about how you choose to travel,” Goodwin concluded in his blog post. “Choose the responsible operators and shame the disrespectful.”

Lori Robertson writes the Ethical Traveller column for BBC Travel. You can send ethical dilemmas to