Baseco and the ‘kick’ from slum tourism

/ 09:49 AM March 02, 2020
melanie smokey tours baseco fb

Image: Smokey Tours via Facebook/Melanie Dela Peña

Melanie peels garlic at home for P80 a sack when she is not working. Work for her is a twice-a-week freelance gig, wherein she wears the hat of a tour leader.

This is her job at Smokey Tours, a social enterprise that aims to show “the other side of Manila” through its slum tours. For the price of €23.50 or about P1,400, foreigners are led through the labyrinthine slums of Baseco Compound by a “tour leader” who is also a resident of Manila’s Port Area or nearby Tondo.


Baseco (Bataan Shipyard and Engineering Company), also known as Barangay 649, is a parcel of land spanning more or less 520,000 square meters in Port Area, Manila. It was previously called the National Shipyard and Steel Corporation (NASSCO), but was named Baseco when it was possessed by the Romualdez family, kin to former first lady Imelda Marcos, in 1964, as per Denis Murphy, the late executive director of NGO Urban Poor Associates.

Baseco, which consists of Engineer’s Island and two breakwaters that extend to Manila Bay, was proclaimed open for disposition to its actual occupants by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2002. As of the 2015 population census, there are 59,847 people living in Baseco.


Motivations one could have in engaging in a slum tour may be varied, but a slum tour, in every sense of the word, is as literal as it gets: through it, one sees a glimpse of life in an informal settlement and encounters people living in it by way of a guided excursion.

The Baseco slum tour, like most other types of walking tours, begins with a meeting place: the McDonald’s at Good Earth Plaza in Carriedo, at 9 a.m. sharp. From there, Melanie introduces herself to guests assigned to her, before ushering them to ride a jeepney which goes past Intramuros to Bonifacio Drive. They then ride a tricycle that would take them to Baseco Compound, and for the next three hours, take on the walking tour of the area. Melanie, now, must be able to explain and show her guests the realities of living in Baseco in — as much as possible — straight English.

“Sobrang hirap kasi kailangan mo dito isang daang porsiyentong confidence na wala ako eh. Mahirap siya dahil unang una, taga Baseco kami. Hirap kami sa [confidence] kasi ang tingin ko nga dati sa mayayaman…” she trailed off and gestured her hand to a height.

(This is so hard because what one needs here is 100% confidence, which I do not have. It is hard because first and foremost, we are from Baseco. We lack confidence because, as for me, I look at the rich as [way up there].)

She then brought her hand significantly lower and continued, “Ganun lang kami, tingin ko mababa… Yumuko ka sa mga mayayaman.”

(Meanwhile, I see us as [way down here]. Bow down to the rich.)

The tours, however, are a gig too good for Melanie to pass up on. She earns P350 for each tour, after all, and when pooled together with the arbitrary earnings of her husband, who is a boatman, the amount is just exact for their family of five to get by on.


“Sakto pero hindi sapat, kasi 350, twice a week lang ako,” she explained. “Tapos yung asawa ko naman, pag meron [lang] pasahero. Kung wala, [wala]. Hindi siya consistent.”

(It’s ok but not enough, being only for P350 twice a week. My husband only earns when there are passengers. If there is none, we got nothing. It is not consistent.)

From Smokey Mountain to Happyland to Baseco

Juliette Kwee, a Dutch woman, has been living in the Philippines for around 12 years. She founded Smokey Tours some time in 2011 after organizing a photowalk in Tondo with 15 photographers. These photos were eventually showed in an exhibit at a gallery in Gateway mall, compelling the Tondo children who were featured to go and see their photos with their families.

“I was in the shower and I thought, why not organize a slum tour? Because you bring worlds together and I think beautiful things can happen, right? Plant a seed, I don’t know,” Kwee said. “Perhaps you’re gonna do something, another person’s gonna do something, a lot of people still e-mail, ‘I want to donate, I want to do something, I want to spend time [there], I want to volunteer…’”

Their signature slum tour was originally held in Smokey Mountain in Tondo, a landfill site where Manila’s poorest of the poor have found home in its refuse heap. Kwee said this tour was closed down in 2014, prompting them to transfer to Happyland, another slum area in Tondo, before settling in Baseco Compound in 2014.

Smokey Tours donates 100% of its profits back to the community, by way of collaborated projects with NGOs and government agencies. It used to partner with the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission for a livelihood project in Baseco, until the PRRC was abolished by President Rodrigo Duterte in November 2019. Today, they work with the Pasig River Control and Management Office under the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources for clean water and eco-gardening in the community.

Anyone who wishes to apply as guide in Smokey Tours would need to present a biodata and must be able to speak in English. But Kwee is certain about her terms for the people she takes under her wing.

“We train people and we make it clear that they can only stay for two years. They’re actually freelancers,” she said. “The first year they get coaching, [in] English, [with] any volunteers we can get to help them. And they have a coach, [a] former tour leader… They learn how to do finance, handle all the money. So the first year I also try to give them self-esteem.”

After their first year of training, the participants undergo a talent development program. It is composed of eight sessions delivered by a volunteer professional who teaches residents in Baseco how to write a resume and how to apply for a job, among others.

Melanie, when she was still starting out, said she would join the slum tours so she could get a feel of how to go about her job. As part of her training in becoming a tour leader, she had to memorize notes and facts about Baseco and its residents — trivia that she would share to the guests during the tour. She was also taught English grammar and how to use a computer.

Kwee noted that Smokey Tours offers SSS, PhilHealth and Pag-Ibig enlistment, as well as loans, to its tour leaders. After two years, some tour leaders would go their separate ways; some have put up their own sari-sari stores and shelters in Baseco, while others have gone abroad to work as OFWs.

Chris Way, co-founder of Reality Tours and Travel, serves as a consultant to Smokey Tours. Reality Tours and Travel has been operating slum tours in Dharavi, Mumbai, since 2006. “Slumdog Millionaire” was eventually filmed in the slums of Dharavi, and upon its release, boosted Reality Tours’ sales by about 25%, as per ABC News on February 2009.

In 2018, Smokey Tours saw around 1,500 guests, with December as the busiest month. Usually, guests are Japanese, Australians, Dutch and German. There are some Filipinos who also go on the slum tour, said Kwee, and “very strange,” recently, Chinese tourists as well. As for Smokey Tours’ yearly earnings, Kwee said they are at a minimum and, most of the time, depend on the donations of guests.

Slum tourism in the Global South

Slum tourism in recent years has become a significant area of study for a number of scholars, so much so that researchers the world over established the Slum Tourism Research Network for the sole purpose of studying the phenomenon.

Tourism in general, however, has been around for centuries, arguably beginning with the Grand Tour that ran through the cities of Paris, Geneva, Rome, Florence, Venice and Naples from the 15th through the 18th centuries. Mass tourism eventually came to the fore in the 19th century. University of Illinois at Chicago professor emeritus Dennis R. Judd, whose research has focused on urban political economy, wrote in “Cities and Visitors: Regulating People, Markets and City Space” in 2003, that the Grand Tour was considered a rite of passage for the young men of the British upperclass, who were expected to come of age upon seeing, among others, the ruins of Rome, and the physical decay and poverty apparent in the Grand Tour cities.

In the 1990s, a new form of tourism broke to the surface, and one that spread at a quick rate throughout the Global South. Malte Steinbrink, the chair of social and cultural geography at the University of Passau in Germany, wrote in his 2012 study for the Tourism Geographies journal, that a rising number of poor urban settlements in the Global South is being marketed for tourism. These are usually done in the form of guided tours, whether on a bus or a jeep, or as walking tours.

Slum tourism in townships of South Africa and favelas of Brazil, for example, has already become a professionalized business, as per Steinbrink. He adds that organized slum tours in the poor areas of Manila, Jakarta, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Nairobi and Mazatlan, Bangkok and Windhoek have also been in existence.

“The slum has always symbolized the ‘dark,’ the ‘low,’ the ‘unknown’ side of the city,” wrote Steinbrink. “From the bourgeois perspective, the poor urban areas have constantly been constructed as areas containing ‘the Other.’ Visiting a slum for leisure purposes has always been done in the wish to experience the Other.”

And this experience of encountering the “Other” seems to hark back to Smokey Tours’ catchline on its website, which calls on tourists to “see the other side of Manila.”

The route of the Baseco slum tour, for example, is fixed and standardized with official stops, said Kwee. In this route, the tour leader walks the guests through the residential area of Baseco, where majority of the locals live in stilt houses above murky waters. At one point, guests are shown Baseco’s very own “Boracay beach,” which has since been opened to the public beginning January this year.

The tour also allows guests to have a glimpse of the various subsistence strategies of the locals, such as fishing, charcoal-making, and garlic peeling, to name a few. Melanie mentioned that it is also common for locals to engage in trading with the mariners of the containerships nearby, who usually give clean water to the locals in exchange for cigarettes and liquor, which are not allowed on the ship.

“People pay for a tour, right? Because people don’t wanna just donate all the time, especially people in the West,” Kwee said at one point. “They’re tired. They want to have something in return, so I think that’s what’s nice about it. People give something, they’re gonna get something in return, like an experience.”

Kwee admitted that she received criticism about Smokey Tours when it was just starting out, although she did not detail exactly what kind of negative feedback she got.

Melanie, for her part, said she used to think of Smokey Tours as exploitative, before she joined. Now, she seems to think otherwise.

“Parang nadadala din ako sa sinasabi ng kapitbahay namin, kasi sabi nila ayaw nila kasi parang ine-exploit daw, ganun lang yung isipan nila, ‘oo nga noh,’” said Melanie. “Kaya gusto kong alamin kung ano nga ba, pero natuwa naman ako kasi hindi naman ganun. Nakakatulong kami sa kanila kasi yung ibang guests namin, sabi nga nila ay ‘yung problema pala namin hindi naman pala talaga problema.’”

(I used to feel carried away by our neighbors. They said they do not like it because it looks exploitative. So I wanted to know what it is exactly. I was pleased because it turned out otherwise. We are able to help them. Some of our guests say our problems are really not problems.)

But this reaction from the guests — of realizing they do not have it so bad upon witnessing the realities of the urban poor — seems exactly the kind of response that slum tours trigger. And for Dr. Hector Guazon, an anthropologist and a professor at the University of Philippines, Diliman, it at once risks depoliticizing poverty on the side of Baseco’s locals and politicizes the experiences of the guests to believe that what they have back home is better.

“Depoliticizing [poverty] in this context, pero it’s politicizing for their benefit. ‘Yung benefit dun ay, ‘Tama tayo, mas maganda pa sa atin,’ ‘yun ang karaniwan…” said Guazon. (The benefit here is that tourists usually end up thinking, “We are right, we have it better.”)

“So [their] transformation… is meant to embrace their current contexts,” added Guazon. “We become an experiment site [for the] simple experience of compassion, training ground for compassion… These people that they have to see must have an impact on their emotions and also their values, their compassion. So [that is the] source [of the] kick.”

This kick, he added, is not so much psychological, but one that is conditioned by the system. And after some time, those who went on the slum tour would just have a fond memory to look back on.

“The good feel of nostalgia,” said Guazon. “At one point in their life, they have been to the Philippines, they experienced hospitality of the poor. Nostalgia, [that is also a] kick, producing the kick.”

Who is it really for?

The question of reconciling the idea of donations with the systemic problem of poverty also remains in the air. Guazon, instead, wondered whether the empowerment of the disenfranchised is really being addressed in slum tours.

“How do you get donation? This is [a] frame under the prism of helping the Others, specifically the third world countries,” he added. “Kaya when they come here, it’s really [for] tourism [purposes], tourism meaning to say [it’s because you have a] market.”

The state of things, however, are not so black and white. Kwee herself is candid about the uncertainty of Smokey Tours, when she is asked about its future.

“So, I don’t know what’s gonna happen, right, with the place also,” said Kwee. “Are we gonna do another tour? I don’t know.”

“Poverty should be eradicated, and our slum tour as well,” added Kwee. “Talent development topics, for people with not many chances, will always be there and our focus is on giving people chances to develop themselves.”

Melanie, too, does not see herself working as a tour leader in Smokey Tours forever. Rather, she treats the opportunity as a stepping stone for her own plans. Kwee recently shared that Melanie has found a new job in Smokey Tours; she did not mention what this new job is, although added that Melanie has not been able to accept it just yet due to personal circumstances.

Melanie also has a dream of buying her own house. To do this, she believes she has to leave the country and work abroad. She is aware she must leave the slums.

“Sa slum kasi, hindi ko naman pinangarap na diyan lumaki ang mga anak ko, kasi ayokong maranasan [nila] yung naranasan ko,” said Melanie. “Lagi kang takot, minsan may nagbabarilan, may tatakbo… Gusto kong makapamuhay sila ng normal, ‘yun ang pangarap ko talaga ngayon, na sana hindi [pa] huli. Hindi pa huli.”

(I never dreamt of my children growing up in the slums. I do not want them to experience what I have experienced. You are always afraid. Sometimes there are shootings, people run. I want them to live normal lives. That is really my dream now, that hopefully it is not yet too late. It is not yet too late.) JB


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