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'Gangland' tourism: economic boost to distressed communities, or exploitation?

Will bus tours of LA's poorest areas help or hurt these communities?
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Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributor on

For those who enjoy travel off the beaten track, the thriving eco-tourism business offers glimpses into some of the world's most exotic locations, from the upper reaches of Canada's Arctic Circle to the rain forests of interior Brazil. These travel services are not only a viable business, but also help build awareness of the earth's more fragile regions.

Can the same principle apply to the world's more fragile economic areas? In January, civic activists in South-Central Los Angeles say they will be commencing bus tours of some of the grittiest areas of the city, with profits funneled back into the community.

Organizers hope that such exposure will bring both economic opportunity as well as awareness of the problems faced by LA's distressed communities. However, others are concerned that such services will put residents on display for gawking tourists.

According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, a nonprofit group plans to offer two-hour tours at an initial cost of $65 per adult, "with profits funneled back into the community through jobs, 'franchised' tours in new areas and micro-loans to inner-city entrepreneurs."

The idea has been applied in other parts of the world, with mixed perceptions and results:

"The concept... seems to echo, more than anything, the 'slum tours' of such sites as India's Dharavi township and Rio de Janeiro's favelas. Those operations have been lauded as innovative economic tools and mechanisms for humanizing poverty -- and also attacked as exploitative and voyeuristic."

So, will this type of tourism be akin to visiting places like Tombstone, Arizona, with more benign vistas of the Wild West culture? Or does it exacerbate, perpetuate and perhaps even glorify the dysfunction wrought by poverty and violence?  Would making hay from gang warfare sites be the same as attempting to build an economic base off tattoo and check-cashing parlors?

Organizers say that the tours will emphasize education and public service, providing oral history about the rise of racist housing restrictions and how they "shaped ethnic enclaves and the formation of gangs." The organization is supported by city business leaders and gang experts who are contributing start-up capital and advice, according to the article.

There are other ways to provide opportunities to distressed communities and people left outside of the economic mainstream. Education, entrepreneurship and a sense of hope and purpose are all building blocks to a better life. These communities need sustainable, quality businesses and organizations. Is tourism of the dysfunction the right answer?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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