Favela tourism. Really?

Rocinha favela Rio de Janeiro 2010

Slum tourism, poverty tourism, poorism, call it what you like. Gaining in popularity, it´s an area of travel that is debated regularly, a topic that is complex and full of emotive response.

On my way in and out of Rio de Janeiro I drove past many, many favelas. Some just looked like rundown villages, nothing unusual when I compared them, for example, to places in Peru. Apart from this is Brazil, rich in resources, rich financially (Brazil, for example, overtook the UK economy in 2011). But whilst Brazil may well be developing at quite a rate, the disparity between rich and poor is still very apparent, both financially and healthwise. And many millions of people still live in extreme poverty.

By definition a settlement of jerry-built shacks lying on the outskirts of a Brazilian city, slums and favelas are realities of developing countries, neighbourhoods where the most desperate fringes of society try to survive life by whatever means necessary whilst living in cramped, cobbled together set-ups rife with feuding and criminality.

Various movies including City of God and Slumdog Millionaire have drawn the world’s attention to the harsh realities of favela and slum life and have been said to encourage ‘slum tourism’, much to the disgust of many.  Rio de Janeiro is visibly tapping into this trend with hostels in the city inviting middle-class travellers to spectate at favela football matches, take favela tours, go to favela parties. Favela hostels are also starting to make an appearance.

But how appropriate is it really to make favelas into a tourist attraction? And why the intrigue? Do we really need to see extreme poverty, taste a little danger in order to feel better about ourselves? Is it not voyeuristic and intrusive and a little sick to want to observe and capture other people´s misery? Is it not disrespectful?

Can slum tourism, however, actually be a good thing?

If you learn something about a different way of life, if it makes you more tolerant and understanding of other people, then that´s obviously a positive, and if your money gets to the right people and isn´t hijacked by the criminals and drug lords who run some of the slums, then maybe there is some good that can come out of all of this. Exotic Tours, for example, suggest that ´Your visit will help a local school.´ The idea of creating employment for the local community is undoubtedly another upside to favela tourism with companies such as Favela Adventures claiming to be run ´100% by residents in the favela of Rocinha´.

I´ve read so many different reports on favela tours and have a number of conflicting feelings about the whole debate. I didn´t take a tour or attend the eardrum bursting parties. For now, it didn´t appeal, didn´t feel right.

Slum tourism, poverty tourism, poorism, call it what you like. But please, don’t romanticise it.


Filed under brazil, culture, random, south america

8 responses to “Favela tourism. Really?

  1. Tucker Landesman

    Nicely done. Did you end up visiting a favela, be it guided or solo? What was your experience like?

  2. M P Holbek

    “Heliopolis” by James Scudamore is a very readable Booker Prize-nominated novel set in Brazil on both sides of the wealth divide. Well worth a look if you get the chance.
    Your writing gets better and better.

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