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From Dharavi To Smokey Mountain: What It Takes To Run A Responsible Tour Company

Chris Way, co-founder of Reality Tours, takes us through his work with Smokey Tours in Manila and compares it with the challenges he faced in Dharavi.

I have been acting as a Consultant for Smokey Tours since March 2013, when I visited Manila for the first time. Juliette Kwee, from the Netherlands, who was working as a missionary for a Manila based NGO working in the slums, saw the potential of providing slum tours in the area. The benefits that she saw were the obvious ones- employment opportunities for the tour leaders, tour receipts being used directly to help the people in the area, but also, she wanted to be a connecting agent between visitors wanting to help out and organisations doing work in the slums. She was partly influenced by the work that we were doing in Mumbai and one of her volunteers who was leading the project contacted me in the second half of 2012 to ask some questions. With the arrival of our first CEO in January 2013, this seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to actually visit and provide some assistance on the ground. I’ve learned a lot during my time with Smokey Tours. It has been very interesting to help identify their main challenges and to compare these challenges with those that we have faced in India at Reality Tours.

Rooster on the slum tour
Rooster looking on near Pritil Market, a stop on Smokey Tour’s slum tour.

When I arrived, Smokey Tours was then Smokey Mountain Tour, as they conducted one tour of an area called guess what…. Smokey Mountain! This was a slum of around 20,000 people where the residents lived in pretty dire conditions- poor housing and sanitation and the majority of adults (and many of the kids) worked as scavengers in the nearby dumpsite or in the charcoal making businesses. Visiting the latter had to be experienced to be believed, as the conditions were simply dreadful; making charcoal involves a lot of wood burning, and a lot of smoke. Working as scavengers wasn’t much better, going through bags of trash finding plastic, glass, metal and any other items that can be recycled.

That said, and despite the obvious poverty, what shone through when visiting the area was how friendly and welcoming the residents were. They seemed more confident and outspoken than the normally shy Filipinos, but maybe that was because I was visiting their “patch”.

It is the warmth and reception of the residents which is for me the defining factor between showcasing poverty, and showcasing hope and positive spirit despite the challenging environment. I have seen some slums in Mumbai which are pretty desperate, and while on one hand, you feel that places like this need to be highlighted so that hopefully something is done, on the other hand, if the conditions of the residents are so bad and it’s clear that they don’t want you there, it’s not going to work and you would justifiably be accused of poverty tourism.

As well as feeling completely safe, Smokey Mountain was not a depressing place to walk around; after visiting it for the first time, I came away with the feeling, just like when I visited Dharavi for the first time eight years previously, that this was a place worth showing to others.

Smokey Mountain Tour was a project run by World Experience Philippines, a Filipino registered NGO which also provides volunteer placements primarily for foreigners, as well as some other business activities. I got stuck into all areas of the tours side, both on the ground as well as the back office work. This included working with the tour leaders, implementing quality control procedures like questionnaires, updating bookkeeping systems and helping with management and overall strategy.

Smoked Fish on the Market Tour
A woman selling smoked fish during the Smokey’s Market Tour

It has been great to be able to use the knowledge gained from Mumbai to help out at Smokey Tours. Juliette, as well as the tour leaders, has been very open to new ideas and suggestions, which made things very easy. I was initially there for 2.5 months, and have returned every year since for a similar time period to help out with similar tasks. It’s great to see the progress that Juliette and her team have made- tour numbers have gone up substantially every year and Smokey Tours has been #1 on Trip Advisor for some time now which is much deserved because of all their hard work and passion.

Last year, the residents of Smokey Mountain were relocated, and the area destroyed, and we’re now doing tours in another area nearby, called “Happy Land”. This place used to be called “Hapilan”, which in the local language, means “Dumpsite”, but over time it became known as “Happy Land.” Just like in Smokey Mountain, the people certainly seem happy despite the problems that they face and it has been an honour to spend time with local people, speaking frankly and honestly, but without a spec of self-pity, about their lives.

Pagpag in Happy Land
Woman selling “pagpag” (recycled food) in Happy Land

The comparison between the challenges we faced in Mumbai with those in Manila is interesting. In both places, the residents have, on the whole, been receptive to us bringing visitors into their communities. Smokey Tours’ association with NGO “San Martin de las Porres”, an established NGO providing assistance to many people in Smokey Mountain, undoubtedly made things a lot easier, just like the new relationship with NGO “Crest” has helped dispel concerns of residents in Happy Land.

Criticism of the slum tours in Mumbai came mainly from those people not living in them including from the government (being told by a tourism minister that Krishna and myself should be “behind bars” was a particular highlight), although in Manila, Juliette feels that the reporting has been a lot fairer.

Despite not getting as much criticism as Reality Tours, it’s still a challenge to present the slum tour in a way that convinces people it is not only respectful but also worth doing. Smokey Tours has done this by addressing the fears that people have in their mind on their website, as well as highlighting their responsible practices- no cameras, small groups, profits go the community. This is what Reality Tours has done as well.

Government bureaucracy and paperwork have been problems for both organisations, but I think the greatest challenge has been on a more individual level, which most start up entrepreneurs face. In Mumbai, we now have a team in place with the skills to deal with the various aspects of the organisation, but I remember when we started up and having to do most things myself. makhachkala current time I was fortunate enough to have Krishna, my business partner, to deal with a lot of the operations side of things including managing tour guides and liaising with the people in Dharavi, but there was still a lot to do, and learn quickly! There’s marketing, accounting and management skills to be learnt, in an environment and culture that you’re not familiar with (“yes” doesn’t always mean “yes” for example); yet the biggest challenge is learning how to manage all your tasks, and somehow trying to keep the work life balance. For Juliette, this has been no different.

I’m very proud of what Smokey Tours is doing and the manner in which we do it- using local guides, no photos policy, small groups, profits staying in the community. We’ve just done some vision and mission brainstorming for the whole organisation, and I’m very excited that the primary focus will continue to be the people in Happy Land and other similar underprivileged communities in Metro Manila.

Chris Bicycle Tour
Chris (left) getting ready to start the a Bicycle Tour in Manila with Tour Leader Jessie!