The discreet charm of urban poverty
What is Favela Tourism? When did favelas start being showcased in Rio de Janeiro’s travel guides as a must-see experience to grasp the “authentic spirit” of the city? With this exploration, we would like to understand the phenomenon of slum tourism in Rio de Janeiro and discuss its social, economic and urban impact on recipient communities.
100 years of solitude (1)
Rocinha, Cidade de Deus, Morro da Providência, Santa Marta are only some of Rio’s most known informal settlements spread over the metropolitan area: long time considered the underprivileged parts of the city, and their population stigmatized as “the poorest of the poor”.
Historically, the formation of the favelas started in the early 1900s, when soldiers returning from military campaigns temporarily settled down at the hills around the city. At that time, the term favela used to indicate those informal settlements. By 1920, 26 favelas were identified in Rio de Janeiro. Yet only as a consequence of the housing crisis of the 1940s - that forced the urban poor to massively erect hundreds of shantytowns in the suburbs - favelas became the main type of residence for destitute Cariocas (residents of Rio). These 100 years of (urban) solitude were interrupted in the early ’90s, when a new type of “alternative” economy started out in Rio de Janeiro, rediscovering favelas’ hidden charm: the so-called Favela tourism.
In a socio-spatial point of view, this century of marginalization led to the creation of ‘cultural islands’, disconnected from the formal city and stigmatized from the rest of the population as places of extreme poverty, violence, and crime. An archipelago of "spaces of otherness".
The very first stone of such touristic exploitation was unofficially laid in 1992 during the ‘Rio Conference on Environment and Sustainable Development’ when favelas welcomed several groups of international visitors as part of organized tours with professional guides. Moving to the aestheticization of slums poverty and its washing into a Brazilian trademark, a crucial support was given by the art and show industry. In 1996 Michael Jackson visited the favela of Santa Marta to shoot a video clip for one of his songs, unveiling the favela’s hidden cultural treasures to his worldwide audience. Along the same lines, the movie ‘City of God’ (2) shot between Cidade de Deus and Rocinha played a catalytic role for the romanticization of the favelas, presenting the life in the slums and increasing the interest in the favela as a tourist destination.
We can easily deduct how much the trend of enhancing favela’s value as a mass tourism product has been affecting Rio’s slums on the occasion of other big Brazilian venues (i.e. the FIFA World Cup of 2014 and the Olympic Games of 2016).
The touristic industry, with the support of the official Tourism Organization of Rio de Janeiro, trades favelas street-liveliness, authenticity and informal architecture as the colourful products of Brazil’s poverty. (Bianca Freire-Medeiros, 2006)
Gradually, favela tours have been resulting in an organized, expanding, industry: informality, poverty, everyday life struggles, people heartiness are commodified and traded as Rio’s real spirit. Not less important, the feeling of unsafety - stemming from the stigmatization of favelas as places of raging criminalities and drugs - offers the potential tourist an attractive adrenaline. Through Jeep’s windows or walking around accompanied by local guides, visitors can experience the aura of ‘otherness’ that exists in the favelas.
[-] Investigating the favela as a social space with a collective cultural identity, we can easily recognize the negative impacts of favela tourism on the social cohesion of its community. Favela tourism is based on pre-existing, national, class, financial, and racial inequalities. At the same time, the commodified mass products are, amongst others, the cordiality, livelihood and the poverty of the faveleros themselves. The market trend is that of idealizing the life of the poor within the favelas, in order to maintain this sort of “picturesque” value. Favela tourism is based on the relationship underprivileged vs wealthy: this means that favela tourism is, by nature, against the social development and the living standards upgrade of the local communities.
Additionally, the current status of favela tourism seems unable to create productive social encounters between the faveleros and the tourists, resulting in a limited level of contact and interaction. Responsible for that is the lack of active participation of the locals in the touristic activities in the favelas since the market is controlled, organized, and managed from agencies and individuals living outside the favelas. (3)
[+] As aforementioned, the favelas are considered lively, authentic, colorful parts of Rio, but they are also socially stigmatized as spaces of violence, crime, transgressions, and poverty. The tours give the opportunity to dissipate the myth that favelas are exclusively violent places and surpass negative stereotypes of the faveleros as a dangerous community. Nevertheless, the exchange between tourists and residents is restricted to a minimum during the actual tour, even if a more intensive involvement with their respective counterpart would be welcomed. Breaking through the 100 years of urban solitude opened these enclaves to a wider public, giving them - for the first time - representation, improving collective pride and self-esteem.
[-] From an economic point of view, favela tourism should have positive reflections on the local population’s financial status. Sadly, the way the touristic activities are currently organized and managed proves that favela tourism is less profitable for the ones whose life is being exploited and commodified. Responsible for that is again the marginal participation of the local community in tourism. Furthermore, many of the touristic agencies promote favela tours as an act of solidarity while, in reality, the benefits for the population are again minimal in a form of a charity, fact that raises the question if the poverty tours are an act of social altruism or just plain voyeurism?
[+] A positive side effect is the development of local economies - informal markets, street vendors, local shops - across the paths that tourists are leaded through. The promotion of the favela as a trademark also embodies another possible good outcome: under the brand name of a favela a large range of new products - such as souvenirs, local art, etc - could be promoted, provided that locals are those who actively take part in the production and trade of the ‘made in favela’ products.
The favela Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro is the “privileged locus of poverty”: breathtaking view on the city, colorful houses, a great postcard from Rio. But, as mentioned, Rio de Janeiro consists of an archipelago of informal ‘cultural islands’, where Rocinha is only one of the 600 favelas in it. What happens with the less attractive of the favelas? The movie ‘City of God’, the Cidade de Deus aka the less privileged among the Brazilian favelas, is a good example of this intersectional marginalization: (4)
No spectacular view of the ocean, not blessed by the sight of the famous Christ the Redeemer Statue. [...] Cidade de Deus is just plain ugly.
The promotion of certain favelas and the simultaneous marginalization of others is surely a consequence of favelas tourism. For the sake of growing the touristic value, a partial upgrade of a few particular favelas might occur: infrastructures and development will be addressed to favor tourists (not citizens) circulation. Yet, upgrades will be minimal in order to keep the “picturesque poverty”. The rest and less attractive “islands” remain disconnected from the touristic and urban centers and, ultimately, are even more abandoned from the official state.
To conclude, we would like to remark the wish for more participation and involvement from local communities, needed to gain a minimum, non-negotiable, grade of sustainability for this kind of tourism. A local movement for the organization of a “favela touristic agency” could be a flywheel for empowerment and development. Otherwise, what are favelas communities left with?
* This article is part of an academic essay written by the author back in 2014. The full paper with the related bibliography is available here.
1. Reference to the novel of Gabriel García Márquez, ‘Cien años de Soledad’.
2. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, the film was promoted worldwide as a true story about life in ‘‘Rio’s ghettos”. Based on the eponymous novel by Paulo Lins, who grew up in Cidade de Deus.
3. Freire-Medeiros, Bianca; The favela and its touristic transits, Geoforum, Vol. 40, Issue 4, online publication, July 2009, pp. 580–588.
4. Freire-Medeiros, Bianca; ‘I went to the City of God’: Gringos, guns and the touristic favela, Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, Travesia, Vol. 20:1, Routledge, London, 2011, pp. 21-34.
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