Favela Tourism: Stranger than Fiction

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In the wake of President Obama’s recent visit to Rio de Janeiro, which included a tour through the notorious City of God slum, questions have been raised regarding the fate of Brazil’s hill-draped favelas. Brazilian and foreign officials have expressed concern related to the crime-infested favelas, especially in light of the upcoming Brazil-hosted 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. In an effort to qualm international and domestic anxiety, municipal and federal forces are acting together to combat drug lords and rid favelas of potentially spoiling transgressors who could have a devastating impact on the country’s image. However, law enforcement agencies are not the only factions trying to bring about severely needed change. Favela tourism is also playing a role, with tourists acting alongside government officials to revise global attitudes toward these impoverished communities.  In this setting, tourism is helping to stimulate the traditionally hapless economies of the favelas. However, as it is not the official responsibility of foreign tourists to break down the barriers between favela residents and the rest of Brazilian society, Brasília is attempting to invest genuine enthusiasm in the renovation of favelas, beyond the current pacification programs, in which violence is freely used.


A New Perspective

The original wave of Brazilian favelas arose in the early twentieth century when desperately poor rural families began migrating to Rio in search of employment opportunities after the abolition of slavery in 1888.1 As housing was not readily available, shanties were constructed on the only available land—hillsides. Over a century later, approximately 1 million Cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro) occupy the hundreds of favelas littering Rio.

Favela tourism, an increasingly popular tourist avenue, could help to dent the abysmal level of socio-economic inequality in Rio de Janeiro. These tours, first introduced in the early 1990s, draw awareness to the searing needs of Rio’s underprivileged population, while giving tourists access to a side of Rio that often lurks in the shadows.2 The tours are viewed as a spectacular, if grim, alternative to mainstream Rio de Janeiro attractions, such as Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer. They offer a brief portrayal of Rio’s hillside communities that are far more than the habitats often misrepresented by drug lords and criminals.3

Every year, Favela Tour, one of the most popular touring companies in Rio, takes upwards of 4,500 tourists through the streets of Rocinha (the largest favela in Latin America) and Vila Canoas.4 Directed by trained guides, tourists are herded to the favelas in vans, and then venture through the twists and turns of the community’s hillside by foot. Guides walk their groups down main streets and point out local hot spots. Most tours stop by a community center or school, which are often funded in part by the tour’s profits. Tourists are given the opportunity to interact with local members of the community, leaders, and area officials, adding to their impressions of favela life. Depending on the tour, some companies will allow pictures to be taken in predetermined areas, while others prohibit picture-taking completely.


A Beneficial Endeavor

Tourism stirs an entrepreneurial spirit in favela residents. They are encouraged to explore their talents and create crafts that appeal to passing tourists. Paintings, jewelry, purses, t-shirts, and key chains, among other lembranças, fill booths adorning the side streets. Unlike charitable donations, the exchange between tourists and residents has often tutored residents’ business sense and has helped prepare some for future entry into job markets beyond the favelas. Tourists seem to enjoy buying Brazilian souvenirs and often participate in tours with this intention uppermost in their minds.

Tourists learn about these favelas from those who know them best, as tour guides are often recruited from the ranks of the favelas. During the tour, they attempt to share their lives with tourists while guiding them through the highlights of favela life which they avidly embrace. In the case of the Rocinha Tourism Workshop, an initiative directed by Rejane Reis, adolescents may also help direct tours.5 In order to promote the importance of education, Reis pays the young guides every time they attend geography and basic English classes. In addition, each student guide earns double the amount when they participate in a tour. By integrating younger generations, or os jovens, into the tours, Reis is stimulating change from within the favelas. In this way, youth learn the value of hard work and every effort is made to appropriately compensate them for their contributions. Additionally, interaction with foreigners gives jovens access to new perspectives and cultures. Involving gifted youth from the favelas will notably stand out, showing the best sides of favela life and helping the country move along its development plan.

Proponents of the tours also argue that the interaction between favela residents and foreign tourists encourages expansion of aid efforts. After walking through the favelas and learning about daily life from residents, tourists are more likely to support the economic and social advancement of the communities. Tourists characteristically empathize with the residents and are quick to show their concern about the substandard living conditions.6 Because tours often pass through community centers or schools that receive financial support from the tour’s profits, participants feel that they have a direct impact on the lives of the residents they encounter. Both the tourists and the residents are pleased to see that a portion of the companies’ profits is reinvested in community improvement initiatives. Additional aid projects are likely to be tackled with the rising popularity of these tours.

Through the expansion of favela tourism, foreigners are quick to understand that the international media chronically misrepresent the residents of favelas. There are not simply crime afflicted areas, but epicenters of the cultural fluidity of a distinct society. Favela residents take part in numerous samba schools, made famous by Rio’s extravagant Carnaval celebrations.7 Theotonio dos Santos, an economist specializing in sustainable development for the Global Economics Network, states that “[h]istorically, the favelas have always fostered the best samba schools, and many of the country’s top musicians grew up in them.”8 Favelas are also the stomping grounds of the creators of Funk Carioca, a type of dance music that is enormously popular in Brazil and has now gained worldwide popularity.9 Dos Santos also boasts that favelas have a number of cultural attributes, explaining “[t]his is where the special Baile Funk parties are held, and often you can spot the newest tendencies of Brazilian fashion in the favelas.” Tourism motivates the circulation of favela culture and will open outlets to prospective enthusiasts in the outside world.


Not Without Its Critics

Critics of the favela tours often dispute some of the motivation behind tourists’ participation and adamantly depict the tours as voyeuristic, especially when they allow pictures of residents to be taken. Those who condemn favela tourism often consider it unethical and a form of resident exploitation.  It is as if residents are on display, as tourists sit foraging with their cameras in search for the perfect candid pose. Perhaps tourists are only interested in entering favelas so that they can juxtapose residents’ lives to their much more bourgeois ones at home. Critics also question the authenticity of favela tours, claiming that it is impossible for a tourist to imagine the daily hardships and grime experienced by favela residents, as they are free to escape the grinding impoverishment and return to their downtown luxury hotels once the tour is over. For critics, it is pretentious and naïve to think that a tourist can draw concrete conclusions about favela life after spending just a few hours dropping into one. Some residents have recognized these flaws, as resident Bernadete Soares Pereira notes, “[t]he tours in Rocinha go to the poorest areas, the tourists take pictures of the poor people in miserable houses, and then they go back home.”10 Furthermore, favela tourism may not even be sustainable. If tourists are flocking to Rio’s favelas for the purpose of sneaking a glance at the city’s most destitute inhabitants, and not for the panoramic in-depth story, residents would have to continue living in poverty in order to attract new visitors. Tourism may only fuel a prolonged cycle of impoverishment for residents.


Brazilian Government Takes Notice

Regardless of the critiques, the Brazilian federal government views favela tourism with high regard. The administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva initiated a program to further implement tourism into the structure of favela economies.11 In response to the unfortunate neglect of Rio’s lower class, Lula affirmed that “[w]e are obliged to make up for the time lost and ensure that our children will not have to refer to any area as a favela.”12 The Rio Top Tour Project, inaugurated in August 2010, promotes tourism throughout the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Beginning in Santa Marta, a favela of approximately 5,000 Cariocas, federal aid was administered in order to invigorate the tourism industry. The federal government has dedicated 230 thousand Reais (USD 145 thousand) to the project efforts in Santa Marta. English signs indicating the location of attractions are posted throughout the community, samba schools are open, and viewing stations have been constructed so tourists can take advantage of Rio de Janeiro’s over-powering vista. Federal and state officials are carrying out marketing strategies and constructing information booths for visitors. Residents have also been trained to serve as tour guides, following the lead of pre-existing favela tour programs.



It is unclear whether the Rio Top Tour Project has been effective; information regarding employment and crime rates since the project’s enactment is difficult to evaluate. It is possible that results will not be evident until the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, and even then, favelas will continue to require extensive government monitoring to produce analyzable data. The Brazilian federal government must actively combat deficits in education, healthcare, and infrastructural systems in order to expedite social advancement.

Tourism initiatives, like the Top Tour Project, address only a fragment of what needs to be done to invigorate the favelas.  Although tourism helps fill some residents’ pockets with additional resources, raises foreign awareness of the inadequate living conditions, and reveals a cultural richness to global society, federally funded initiatives relating to the favelas must expand. It is not enough to allocate a few hundred thousand dollars towards a project that does not devote itself to fixing fundamental deficiencies, such as the lack of well-functioning education, healthcare, and infrastructural systems. It is the responsibility of the municipal, state, and federal governments to ensure that the needs of residents are no longer overlooked. However, on a positive note, as the Brazilian federal government works with Rio’s municipal leaders to continue pacification efforts, favela communities will likely become increasingly appealing to visitors. One can only hope that foreign tourists’ recognition of some of the inherent resources of favelas will help to generate additional action by the Brazilian government, leading to substantial, and sustainable, change.


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