NEW DELHI: One of the world’s biggest slums, located in Mumbai, has pipped the famous Taj Mahal to become India’s favorite tourist destination.
Dharavi, where close to 1 million people live in an area of just over 2.1 square kilometers, was named by travel website TripAdvisor.com as the 2019 top visitor experience in India and among the 10 most favorite tourist sites in Asia.
The slum has grown up on swamp land in the center of the coastal city of Mumbai over the past 150 years and has poor infrastructure and a lack of basic sanitation and hygiene facilities.
The squalid district was featured in the 2008 Oscar-winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” which tells the story of a Mumbai teenager accused of cheating on the Indian version of TV gameshow “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”
However, in 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Katherine Boo portrayed a new side of life in the slum in her book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum,” which showed it bubbling with hope in a changing world.
The recent Bollywood movie “Gully Boy” also gives the slum a new look with a coming-of-age tale based on the lives of street rappers.
“Slum tourism started in 2003 for the first time but it picked up after the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’” said Dinesh Bhurara, who runs travel agency Mumbai Dream Tours.
“Dharavi is not like a slum, but it is a city within the city. It is well-organized and people from all communities and religions coexist together. They work very hard. When tourists come, they see a new life in the slum which they don’t see in Mumbai and outside. This connects with foreigners,” Bhurara told Arab News.
Bhurara, 24, was born and brought up in Dharavi and started his travel business three years ago after gaining experience with other tour operators.
“People have lots of misconceptions about Dharavi. Movies like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ stereotyped the slum by showing its poverty, underbelly and by typecasting characters. But it’s not like that. When tourists visit it’s an eye-opener for them,” he added.
Tour groups to Dharavi normally consist of around five to six people, with visitors guided through its cramped alleys, and shown around houses and businesses.
“For tourists this is an educational tour. They learn how business is done here, and how people survive with their sheer efforts and aspirations. They also go to business and industry areas,” said Bhurara.
The peak season to visit Dharavi is between November and May with travel agents recording an average of 200 foreigners touring the slum every day during the season.
Bhurara charges 700 rupees ($10) per person for a four-hour trip to Dharavi and has five partners who run the tours with him. “When we take tourists inside the slum, we not only take them into an area, but we also take them into our lives and show them how life can exist even in this space. Many get inspired and are awestruck by the sheer energy inside the slum.”
He said the tourist influx had encouraged many Dharavi youngsters to learn foreign languages as a way to earn a living and he himself had taken up Spanish.
According to Bhurara the majority of tourists are from Europe and China. “People in Dharavi are now attuned to foreigners visiting them and they really appreciate that. For youngsters it’s an extra opportunity to earn some more. So many college students pick up foreign languages to earn something extra,” he added.
Dharavi is a hub of small industries with exports of leather and recycled goods reportedly worth $1 billion a year. More than 4,000 businesses operate there alongside thousands of single-room factories where migrants workers from eastern and western India are employed.
“Many people, even in Mumbai, are not aware of this part of Dharavi,” Vinay Rawat, a tour operator, told Arab News. “In Mumbai people come to see the most expensive house of the industrialist Mukesh Ambani and they also want to see the cheapest place in Mumbai which is Dharavi.”
Rawat added that wealthy people lived in Dharavi where new high-rise buildings had been constructed. He said people had lived there for four generations but that there were fears that the prime land could fall into the hands of property developers.