Voluntourism Philippines.

Smokey Tours: Seeing the Other Side of Manila

Vacationers often devote loads of time for rest and relaxation. But for the curious travellers who want an eye-opening immersion, slum tourism provides a unique opportunity to safely explore deprived neighborhoods and interact with its dwellers.

Slum tourism has been around since the nineteenth century. At present, the special tour is offered in countries such as South Africa, India, and Brazil, to name a few.

In the Philippines, there is “Smokey Tours,” which is a project of World Experience Philippines, Corp, a duly registered non-government organization in the Philippines founded by Juliette Kwee.

Silhouettes of a child and a man standing on one of the corridors in Happyland in Tondo, Manila. Photo by Jay Yao Campos.
This special tour seeks to raise awareness about social issues, inspire individuals to bring about societal change, and bridge the gap between people from different backgrounds.

The proceeds of the operations are used to improve the living conditions in various shantytowns.

Connecting Two Worlds

The Dutch psychologist who has been living in the Philippines since 2008 says that she is not new to volunteer activities. But she felt something stir within her during her first visit to Smokey Mountain, a poverty stricken area located in Tondo, Manila.

Kwee could not help but notice the difference between Smokey Mountain and its neighboring area, Makati City.

Kwee shares, “I went to Smokey Mountain and I was so touched by the community. But I also sometimes go to this posh park in Makati and I was shocked. It’s only half an hour from each other. I started thinking, ‘how can we connect this two worlds?’”

“Smokey Tours” takes travellers to Barangay 105 Happyland, a temporary housing resettlement in Tondo, Manila. Photo by Jay Yao Campos.
Kwee knew she has to use a tool that will appeal to Filipinos from all walks of life.

She concluded: “What do Filipinos like? Filipinos like taking photos. We organized a photowalk and called some photographers to take photos of the children and to show the resiliency of the community.”

The photos, which were put up in an exhibition, sent a powerful message that one could be happy without material things as long there is love, food, and the opportunity for education.

Kwee says that the special tour took shape when she worked with the Smokey Mountain residents and area officers.

“I met some tanods at that time and I was amazed at how they could talk about where they’re from and what they’re doing with pride. “Why is there not a slum tour here?” she shares.

Kwee wasted no time in recruiting and training “tourleaders” from the area. She sought the help of Chris Way, the co-founder of India-based Reality Tours & Travel, which won the Community Award at the World Travel and Tourism Council's (WTTC) 2015 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards Ceremony in Madrid, Spain.

Meet the tourleaders of "Smokey Tours".
“The communities loved it and they are happy. They are very open,” Kwee shares.

“Looking for Volunteers”

The number of Kwee's staff grew over the years. She started by training a barangay tanod and his wife. Now  “Smokey Tours” is staffed by student leaders and freelance “tourleaders.”

Kwee says that potential “tourleaders” must undergo an initial interview, criteria checking,  and poverty assessment. Aside from that, they are required to answer a questionnaire and an exam, memorize notes, and attend tours, meetings, and the Tourism Smokey Course developed by Kwee and her team. Their punctuality is also evaluated by the “Smokey Tours” leaders.

After that, Kwee says, the rest is trial and error.

Kwee enthuses that there are other ways to contribute to Smokey Tours.

“We also have volunteers in our office we always welcome who help with marketing, research, bookings, to name a few,” she says. “Actually, we are looking for some volunteers.”

Makeshift homes in Tondo are made of wood and other scrap materials. Photo by Marty Argarin.
 Facing Adversity

Kwee notes that she thought twice about starting the slum tour in 2014 because of all the negative comments that she received from the online community.

But she decided to push through for the sake of the community. “And at one point, I got so much criticism online. But I asked myself, ‘if I stop now, who will be the victims again?’ It will be the poor,” she says.

Open Doors of Opportunities

For Kwee, the way out of poverty is to provide livelihood and teach the values needed in life.

“I want to train people who can take their own initiative. To be empowered and to take responsibility. People are smart enough to make their own decisions,” Kwee says.


“Smokey Tours” has expanded its list of activities. Aside from the slum tour, tourists can now explore Manila while cycling, go to cemeteries and other local spots, and experience Old Manila by visiting Quiapo Church, Lacson Plaza, and Ongpin Street.

As a testament to the organization’s excellence, “Smokey Tours” has been ranked number one on TripAdvisor.
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