Favelas, the informal settlements that sprawl into the hills of Rio de Janeiro and other urban areas in Brazil, are known for their lack of public infrastructure, their high crime and their high poverty rates. Nevertheless, their popularity has grown both as places to volunteer and places for tourists to visit. Every year in Rio de Janeiro, about 42,000 tourists visit the favelas. With the World Cup and the upcoming Olympics, this number will probably continue to rise. Commonly termed “slum tourism,” this has become increasingly popular and controversial.
One common form of slum tourism specific to Brazil is the favela tour. These tours take various forms, but usually include a guided tour through a slum community. One tour company, Hands Up Holidays, offers favela tours and their website describes a sample itinerary. Tourists stay in a “luxury boutique hotel” and will “step off the beaten track and experience some of Brazil’s hidden treasures including her favela (slum) communities.” While visiting favelas might help tourists see and experience some of the challenges facing Brazil, critics have questioned the ethics of this form of tourism as those wealthy enough can come in, look at the poverty, and then return to their luxury hotel while claiming they saw the “real Brazil.”
Theresa Williamson, the director of the NGO Catalytic Communities working in the favelas, stated, “It’s one thing to go gawk at poverty, another thing is to go see a fascinating community where people are battling it out to better their lives. Residents can feel the difference.” While favelas are integral to understanding the challenges facing Brazilian cities, it would be difficult to understand the social and economic complexities and challenges facing favela residents from just a half-day tour. While some see favela tours as a way for tour companies to profit from poverty, there are promising efforts underway to bring more benefits to the communities themselves.
Recent trends have shown tour companies emphasizing “sustainable favela tours” which include a more direct link to the communities they are visiting, and this sustainability component manifests itself in a variety of ways. Some tour guides encourage the tourists to spend more money in the communities, while others have a direct link to a charity or organization working in the community. For example, Favelatour.org is one organization run completely by residents of the Rocinha favela, and 25% of their profits support a DJ (Disc Jockey) School and leadership program. The tour company Exotic Tours runs favela tours that are led by community members and their profits support training of local guides and school projects within their community. Other tours take tourists to see the Samba Schools, social clubs organized by neighborhood, that are practicing for Carnival competitions. Their rehearsal nights are open to the general public and turn into large night-clubs where tourists can experience the Samba music, dance, costumes and culture that is central to Brazil.
Along with the sustainability component of these programs, raising awareness is another potential benefit. The more people who visit favelas, the more people who will have an understanding of life in favelas and the more people who could potentially work to advocate for or donate to efforts that will improve life and services in these communities. These recent efforts towards more sustainable and less exploitative forms of tourism are promising.
While favela tours remain controversial, they probably will not go away. The Brazilian Ministry of Tourism endorsed favela tours in 2013, and with the Olympics approaching, many tourists will want to see a more “realistic” version of life in Brazil. I hope that with the new emphasis on “sustainable favela tours,” tourists who come for the Olympics will be able to glimpse life in the favelas while contributing towards organizations working on the ground to improve lives of those living there.
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