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Smokey Tours aims to show tourists the harsh realities of Manila

The aim of tourism is usually to educate foreigners and out-of-towners alike about the beauty and history of a certain place. But one group is using it to talk about certain hard realities in the Philippines.

Smokey Tours takes place mainly around the Smokey Mountain dumpsite in Tondo, Manila.
The brainchild of Juliette Kwee, a Dutchwoman who has long lived in the Philippines, Smokey Tours is part of a global movement on slum tourism, which aims to show tourists the realities of poverty.

Kwee described tourist reactions to Smokey Tours as “very, very positive” in a News To Go video Thursday.

“It's the way you bring it, right?” she added. “And this is reality—this is the other side of Manila.”

On Smokey Tours' Facebook page, it is stated that they also have other tours: the Bicycle tour, the Cockfighting tour, and the Market tour. These take tourists to different parts of Manila—such as Malate, Ermita, Escolta, and Chinatown, to name a few.

Their mission is, “By visiting impoverished areas with one of our tour leaders, we strive to give you an impression of the resiliency of some those Filipinos.”

Lest anyone cry “exploitation!” all of the proceeds from Smokey Tours goes to Bahay at Yaman ni San Martin de Porres, an NGO that runs the following programs for several barangays covering 4,833 children and 1,717 adults as of 2012:
  • Medical checkups and medicine distribution once a week for Barangay 105
  • Child sponsorship program, which provides children with school supplies, uniforms, allowances, and other needs for the school year
  • Extra academic classes for children aged 7-12
  • A nutritious feeding program for kids where the parents can also learn to cook the dishes
  • Disaster relief help

The tour also allows tour leaders living in the Tondo area to earn a decent livelihood.

A slice of life in the dumps

Shown in the video were many narrow, winding pathways lined with ramshackle houses and garbage. The food of choice there is “pagpag,” which is leftover food restaurants have thrown away.

Tour guide Nympha related how a Singaporean tourist once ate “pagpag.”

“Talagang bumili siya and then kinain niya sa harapan ko,” she said. “And then sinabi niya sa akin, 'Nympha, want to try?' Sabi ko, 'no, no.'”

When asked why he did that, Nympha explained that he wanted to really experience the tour.

Also shown in the video was the smoke-blanketed community of Ulingan, where families earn their living by helping out at the charcoal industry. The smoke is so thick that it hurts the eyes and irritates the throat; but even so, many youths can be seen toiling away, wearing no protective gear at all.

Each one earns P350 for every order of wood.

Tourist and general public reactions

Despite this, many of the inhabitants wave at the camera, all smiles. There was even a group of three small children, one of them excitedly squealing, “Hello po! Hellooooo!”

“We spoke to another foreigner and we asked them what was the best thing they'd ever done in the Philippines,” said tourist Mary Parker. “And they said, this [the Smokey Tours].”

Charlotte Cialek, another tourist, said, “It gave them a really good perspective on what life is like in the Philippines. This is the most-eye opening experience.”

But it appears that there are some in the Philippine public at large who aren't so hot on the idea, as one look at the comments section of the video proves. Reactions range from, “katangahan,” to “exploitation of people's misery for money,” to “we should give the politicians this tour.”

Indeed, while slum tourism appears to be a divisive topic for now and the future, it seems like a good way to remind tourists, especially those from First World nations, that lush islands and cozy beaches are not the only thing they don't have back home—and hopefully, to help such folk gain a better understanding of the world and thus move them to action.

One posits that it would be equally eye-opening for Manileños who live in relative comfort away from the slums as well. — Vida Cruz/BM, GMA News