Rio de Janeiro is expecting 380,000 international tourists to descend on the city for the 2016 Summer Olympics beginning Friday night. Many of these tourists will face an ethical dilemma: should they consider visiting one of the city’s over 1,000 favelas? The self-built, historically unregulated communities many Olympic visitors will see on the hillsides outside their hotels in Rio’s South Zone
Popularized by films like ‘City of God,’ Rio’s favelas have emerged as a staple of the city’s tourist circuit with over 42, 000 annual visitors. The favela tourists I’ve interviewed tell me they are motivated to ‘see the real Rio,’ visit ‘uniquely local culture,’ and, as one tourist told me, ‘… films like ‘City of God,’ we wanted to see it for ourselves.
Favela tourists are also concerned about the moral dimensions of these tours
Are favela tours voyeuristic? They can be. If you book a jeep tour that ferries you through the community, only intermittently stopping to take photos of locals, you are probably guilty as charged. Avoid favela jeep or van tours if possible.
However, if you take a walking tour with a local guide that is knowledgeable and respected in the community, favela tours are far from voyeuristic. Local guides try to foster interactions between tourists and residents to amend some of the most pernicious stereotypes tourists may have about favelas. And, believe me, many tourists do have unfounded stereotypes. A tourist once asked a local guide: “what about at night, do they (favela residents) rape the kids?”
How do guides neutralize this misinformation and deconstruct prejudices? As one local guide told me: “we make them feel local people. We make them shake hands, hug people, and intermingle with the crowd. We make them feel the heat, the atmosphere of the place.” After three hours intermingling with residents, most tourists come to the realization locals are just average people, not the caricatured homicidal monsters portrayed in some favela films. As one guest told me after her tour: “I expected to see poverty, depression and perhaps, some riff-raff… but I saw happy people. I saw people going about their daily lives, as any people do.” Prejudice, deconstructed.
So, unfounded stereotypes about favelas will be corrected. Great. But do tours benefit the local community? Aren’t these tours exploitative? Some are. Many favela tours are run by individuals that do not live in the community and do not employ local guides. As such, locals see very little of the tourist revenue. That said, taking a tour with a local guide ensures your profits stay in the community. Take the example of one guide in Rocinha that has reinvested over R$60,000 of tour profits to purchase state of the art DJ equipment to run his free DJ school for local residents. My research also suggests tourists spend more money on locally run walking tours that stop to eat and drink at multiple points in the community.
Am I wanted there? You might be surprised to learn many of the locals are interested in talking to you and glad you came. It’s important to realize how stigmatized favela residents are in mainstream Brazilian society. One study found being from a favela to be the most often experienced form of discrimination ahead of racism and sexism for favela residents (Perlman 2010). As a local guide explained to me, “Brazilians don’t pay them (favela residents) any attention,” so when tourists visit these communities “ locals feel proud because you are coming to visit them, they want to tell their stories.”
OK, I no longer feel guilty about taking a favela tour. Anything else I should know? It’s important to realize each favela in Rio is its own unique neighborhood. Favelas are not monolithic. They have different cultures, were settled by migrants from different parts of the country, and vary greatly both socio-economically and in terms of their levels of violence. You will have a much more enriching visit if you chose a local guide that can tell you accurate and thought-provoking stories about the community only a local would know.
Rio has a reputation for vibrant street life and spontaneity in public spaces. I know of no better neighborhood where this image of the city is realized than the bursting with energy favela of Rocinha. If you’re in Rio the next two weeks (or anytime after) book a tour with a local guide and check out this fascinating, self-built neighborhood of over 100,000. I think you’ll be glad you did.
Dr. Ryan Goode is adjunct professor of Geography at Cerritos College. He recently completed his PhD dissertation on favela tourism in Rio de Janeiro.