Slum Tourism

Is it ever right for tour operators to offer excursions to slums?

Like us, you are probably uncomfortable with the idea of wealthy tourists paying money to look at poor people. But is there a way that such tours could ever be ethical and help alleviate poverty?

“Poverty tourism”, “poorism”, “slum tourism”, “favela tours”, “township tours” and “reality tours” are some of the terms used to name this controversial phenomenon of tourism, but they all describe the same practice: organised excursions to informal settlements, or “slums”.

Today slum tours are sold as an alternative to traditional tourism and a more realistic form of experiencing a country – getting in touch with real people and the local culture. It is estimated that 40,000 tourists visit favelas in Rio de Janeiro each year while around 300,000 visit the townships in Cape Town. Tours are also widespread in India, Kenya, Mexico, and many other countries in the developing world.

According to UN-Habitat slums are groups of people living in urban areas that lack one or more of the following: durable housing, sufficient living space, easy
access to safe water, access to adequate sanitation and security of ternure that prevents forced evictions. However, it is important to highlight that not all slum dwellers suffer from the same degree of deprivation.

Is slum tourism good or bad?

Despite the growing popularity of slum tours there is much criticism and controversy in relation to this form of tourism. On the one hand, proponents of poverty tourism argue that this form of tourism can contribute to a change in the representation of the slums and its people and that slum tourism is a legitimate way to fight poverty. They also argue that the tours help tourists to better understand the world and become more compassionate.

Opponents argue that it’s exploitative of poor people and really doesn’t add much to the understanding of the complicated issues. Moreover, they highlight the fact that the motivation to undertake this kind of experience is only related to voyeuristic consumption of poverty and that the basic human rights of the local residents to dignity and privacy are often undermined. Additionally the inhabitants of these communities, have an uneven access to the benefits generated by tourism.

Of course the reality is more complex. For example if the tours are community based, where negative stereotypes are challenged and local residents have control over and benefit from tourism activities, then this could bring real and lasting benefits to some of the poorest communities.

However, given that almost every tour operator will market their tour as beneficial to the community, it is difficult for tourists to know which tours are supported by the communities and will bring real benefits and which are just marketing hype and exploitative.

Tourism Concern believes that the best people to advise tourists are the residents themselves; local people must have a say in tourist development and can provide a better understanding on how these tours affect their communities.

In 2011 Tourism Concern’s Evelise Freitas undertook research in the Favela Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro, the biggest and most visited favela (slum) in Brazil, to get the residents’ perspective on this controversial form of tourism. See below for her findings, which make disturbing reading.

We are not currently campaigning directly on this issue, but we need your help to raise awareness of the problems articulated by the Rocinha residents. If you have had experiences good or bad examples of slum tourism, pass them on to us. The more direct cases we can refer to, the more authority we have when called up on to speak about slum tourism.


Rocinha is the biggest slum in Brazil with an official population of 69,356 inhabitants (although community leaders claim that the real number is at least 200,000) and attracts about 40,000 tourists each year. Slums in Brazil are called “favelas” and are commonly associated with drug traffic and violence but also known for being places of great cultural expression.

While many Brazilian’s avoid the favelas and try to hide it from toursist, the mixture between poverty, violence, drugs and cultural richness caught the eye of tourism entrepreneurs who see it as a great product to be sold to foreign tourists craving for an authentic experience.

Today at least 7 formal tour operators operate tours in Rocinha (only one is owned by a resident) and visiting the location has become a must do for many foreign tourists. It is estimated that at least 3500 tourists visit Rocinha per month paying around £25 for a tour with an average duration of 3 hours.

Besides providing wealthy tourists with a taste of the favela life, Rocinha is a showcase of the social inequality present in Brazil. As Rocinha is located on a hill between Gavea and Sao Conrado, two of the most exclusive neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro, tourists are struck by the sight of luxurious mansions in the surrounding neighbourhoods as well one of the most beautiful views of Rio de Janeiro.


Tourism Concern spoke to 25 residents in Rocinha about their view of the possible tourism-related benefits and challenges in their community and about their perception of tourists. When asked about actual benefits or what changes tourism has brought to their community the most common answer was “none”.

For the community I don’t see any difference, I see difference in the number of people in the community, we see a lot of foreigners, but benefits for the community I don’t see any.” (Francisco, 34, mototaxi driver)

Although most tour operators claim that their tours are beneficial to the community, none of the interviewees could identify a social project that is run or managed by tour operators in Rocinha.

Any actual benefits reach just a small percentage of the community and are mainly directed to the ones involved with selling souvenirs or handicrafts; however residents still believe that tourism has the potential to impact positively on a larger number of people. Residents hoped that at some point tourism would bring financial resources for social projects and generate jobs for local people.

“The benefits tourism could bring for us are the investments in social projects inside the favela. If there was an institution…an NGO that distributed a percentage of the revenue of tourism to social projects, it would be a benefit; in my opinion it would be a real benefit…” (Peter, 42, fisherman).

“I think all of us see tourism as an opportunity to get some help for social projects, schools, and so forth… the positive is that through tourism we can show that not 100% of the people in favelas are bad people or criminals…” (mototaxi driver, 34)

However, despite the belief that these tours will one day benefit the community this doesn’t necessarily mean that the residents agree with the way these tourism activities take place in their community. Residents were clear that greater benefits could be achieved if there was a stronger commitment from the companies who operate tours in Rocinha. Community leaders were also concerned by the limited economic benefits that stayed in the community, compared to the amount of profit that was being made by the companies.

According to the president of Rocinha’s community association (UPMMR), Leo (46), people in Rocinha are fed up with the exploitation of the favela by the tour operators without receiving almost anything back:

“…tourists are not helping Rocinha, they help the company owners that exploit Rocinha. Tourism is good for the ones who sell it. For us is terrible to know that our community is being exploited in order to some people live in luxurious condition while the poor here live in precarious conditions. If they [tour operators] say they help the poor, tell them to come and talk to us at the community association and tell us how they are helping… I’m not aware of any Tour operator that support any social project in Rocinha… What we have here is a lot of bad intentioned people who come here to exploit Rocinha, put the money in their pockets and walk away.” (Leo, 46, UPMMR president)

Even residents who benefit directly from tourism complained about the lack of collaboration of the tour operators.

“There are some types of companies that work here that, for example, fill 2, 3 cars with tourists and bring them here…so they are making their money, but when they pass in front of the art stalls they don’t even look at us. That’s not cool, not cool. They have made their money already so they just come show something and disappear. As they know where all the artisans stay they should stop and show our work, give us some help…but they just show what is interesting for them.” (handicraft vendor, 31).

Besides claiming that their tours are financially beneficial, some tour operators also claim that the benefits go beyond the economic – they claim that by changing the image of the favela and its residents that it can bring further benefits and improve the image of the favela. The arguemnt is that the tours will enlighten tourists about the real situation in favelas and dispel the myth that the favela is associated with drugs and violence.

However, according to some residents, the way Rocinha is presented in the tours might actually be reinforcing the negative aspects with tour operators exaggerating the negative aspects and ignoring many of the positive aspects of life in Rocinha. As the majority of tour guides are not Rocinha residents it seems there is no real concern about the veracity of the facts presented and how it can affect the perceptions of tourists.

“We don’t want charity, we want qualifications, we want to be able to work and earn our livelihood and show our history the way it really is.” (mototaxi driver, 34)

 Since our report was produced we are aware that at least one local tour operator in Rochinha has set up a social project with funding from tourism. If you have any update on Rocinha, or  want to tell us of your slum tourism experiences, as a resident or a visitor, contact us.

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