Slum tourism, once a marginalized business few tourists dared to experience, has seen a rapid rise in popularity in Brazil. Find out more about this phenomenon in this article.
Slum tourism in Brazil is one of the most well-known tourist attractions in the world. Alongside India, South Africa and other countries, a large number of tourists visit the country every year with the purpose of getting to know one of the poorest places in the world.
Before 2008, few people considered visiting favelas as a must-do activity from their trips to Rio de Janeiro. Since that year, however, going to favelas has become one of the most popular attractions in the city, with survey data showing that nearly 42,000 Rio tourists visit them per year. Favela tourism continues to rise in double digits and a study found that half of its respondents booked or expected to book a favela tour while in Rio.
Seeing potential in this market, the Brazilian government decided to help increase the number of favelas visitors. In January 2013, the Ministry of Tourism made an agreement with Rio de Janeiro state's government in order to encourage tourism in favelas, which have been pacified. The main target is to get tourists in 2014 and 2016, the years when huge sports and competitions will be held by Brazil – the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games.
The guided visits are made by tour operators, and it is preferable to go with a group of tourists and a tour guide who already knows the area, instead of going alone. There are tour operators offering packages of visits that usually last from 2 to 4 hours.
Although slum tourism is a global trend in the travel industry, the rise of favela tourism is, perhaps, unique to Rio. Favelas such as Rocinha and Vidigal, which were originally illegal settlements on some of Rio’s morros (rock formations), have some of the best views of the city. There are also unique tourist points inside the favelas, such as São Daniel Projeta Church, in Manguinhos, which was designed by Oscar Niemayer, or a Michael Jackson bronze statue in Santa Marta, the slum where the singer recorded the video clip “They Don't Really Care About Us”.
The first edition of a favela's tourist guide was launched in July 2013. Compiled by Agência de Notícias das Favelas (ANF), a favelas' news agency that gathers leisure activities in 11 pacified communities in Rio: Chapéu Mangueira, Complexo do Alemão, Complexo do Cantagalo–Pavão-Pavãozinho Mangueira, Manguinhos, Prazeres, Providência, Rocinha, Salgueiro, Santa Marta and Vidigal. A short overview on each favela and tips on how to get to them using public transport is also offered.
The first edition of the guide had 550000 copies and was distributed for free in hotels and kiosks throughout the city. The information available on the paper guide can also be found in the project's website, which is available in Portuguese, English and Spanish.
Since December 2008, police pacifier units were installed in the favels UPPs or Unidades Pacificadores de Polícia. More than 18 UPPs are spread in 29 slums all over Rio de Janeiro and the advent of these units contributed to a increase in local tourism. On the internet, foreigners who have already visited a favela in Brazil claim that this is a worthwhile and safe cultural experience.
Foreigners are not free from violence, though: a German tourist was shot during his visit with a friend to Rocinha, in May 2013. According to reports, they had seen a man holding a gun, got scared and started to run. The German was shot twice, helped by a resident and taken to the hospital.
Violence in Rio hasn't stopped due to the increasing tourism in the city. Although violence can be contained (especially in a place that benefits from visitors' spending money), robberies, rapes and shootings still happen, and tourists must be well-informed to avoid becoming victims of these crimes.
The Slum Tourism Controversy
No one can doubt the impact slum tourism causes in their communities, and whether it is right or wrong to take wealthy people to see poverty. The rise in popularity of favela tours, and poverty tourism in general has initiated concerns about the inequality in distribution of rents, arguing that tour operators make money showing off these communities but do nothing to reinvestment or improve the conditions.
Favela tour operators claim that these services are beneficial to the communities they visit because it heightens awareness of the social and economic factors that led to settlement communities and gives tourists a firsthand experience of the poverty that exists in Brazil. They also say that it encourages tourists to spend more money on goods and merchandise within the communities while on the tours.
Nonetheless, activists and residents don't see the visitors as being good sources of money. According to Tourism Concern, Rio’s favelas attract about 3,500 visitors per month, each of whom pay the equivalent of $40 USD for a three-hour tour. Of these visitors, however, 60 percent say that they paid no more than $3 on goods from locals and only 10 percent said that they bought a souvenir of some kind.
It appears that the situation is changing, as NGOs working in favelas have alerted the issue on the internet and affluent tourists have become aware of the situation. Searching online for favela tour sites, it's possible to see that most tour operators advertise the “sustainability” of their services, but many sites now have disclaimers that disclose whether they invest a portion of their returns in the favelas they visit.
It seems that increasing resentment among favela residents and local supporters will continue to shift the debate toward how tour operators can assist the areas they operate in. This will create opportunities for more socially-conscious travel services to benefit from greater visibility of the issue.