British Columbia

Walking tours exploit Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, advocates say

A walking tour of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has come under heavy fire from activists and advocates of a neighbourhood considered by many to be the worst in the country.

Social media erupts with criticism of expensive walking tours locals often avoid

Critics call walking tours of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside poverty tourism at its worst. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

A walking tour of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has come under heavy fire from activists and advocates of a neighbourhood considered by many to be the worst in the country.  

The tours are being called "totally inappropriate" by many on social media.

Posts on Facebook include comments that describe them as "poverty pimping" and "exploiting misery."

"It's horrible. It's just de-humanizing," said Corinthia Kelly, an organizer with Vancouver's annual Women's Memorial March. 

"When that tour says it's going to cultivate in people like empathy and compassion, I really question that. I think that it is more likely to cultivate a sort of callousness." she said.  

Tour guide Jenn Potter, of Socially Responsible Van, leads groups of people through the city's downtrodden neighbourhood for ToursByLocals.

Jenn Potter started to give walking tours of DTES in 2014. (Socially Responsible Van)

Along the way there are stops at small businesses, coffee shops and eateries. 

Potter feels critics have failed to capture the spirit of her tours. 

"It's definitely not about prancing people through anything to do with looking at poor tours or vulnerability," said Potter. 

"The intention of this is to promote social enterprise and certainly in the sense of the unique concepts that they have and the positive aspect of it." 

Potter says her philosophy is that understanding a neighbourhood and its people creates more compassion.

Tina Gillanders, of Prince George, disagrees. 

It's extremely exploitative- Tina Gillanders

She has family who lives on Vancouver's downtown eastside. 

"It doesn't really matter what the intention of the tour is, sharing what's happening, good things that are going on. The fact of the matter is that it's extremely exploitative," said Gillanders. 

"Maybe at the end of the day people can say oh, I saw this, it's terrible. It's terrible what's happening on the Downtown Eastside but it's a very short-term, one moment experience." 

Potter first started to give the tours two years ago when she found "cool places" while regularly walking between Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.  

"A lot of people will avoid it and walk right around it. Instead, I'm showing people the positive aspects and how concepts like social enterprise can make a change and do good." 

The tours take three-and-a-half hours and cost between $185 to $275 depending on the number of people in the group. 

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Belle Puri

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Belle Puri is a veteran journalist who has won awards for her reporting in a variety of fields.