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Rio’s Favela Tours Are Back, But Are They Ethical?

The return of tourism in Rio de Janeiro has revived a debate about the ethics of one of its most popular and controversial touristic activities.

Márcia Souza is guiding me through Rio de Janeiro’s Museu de Favela (MUF) when suddenly, a woman’s face bursts through an opening in one of the museum’s paintings. She exchanges a warm greeting with Márcia and proceeds to hang her washing out of the window. The painting, which covers the entire facade of this woman’s house, is a mural chronicling the first wave of immigrants who settled in her favela neighborhood, and she is its guardiã. MUF isn’t just a museum about favelas; it is a favela.

Prior to the pandemic, Márcia and other “cultural mediators” from MUF would guide tourists through a circuit of murals painted onto houses in the three favela communities that cling to Rio’s Cantagalo Hill (Cantagalo, Pavão, and Pavãozinho). This open-air art exhibition is a novel twist on the favela tour experience, but its momentum was halted when the coronavirus brought the world to its knees. Neglected by the government, favela residents drew on all their characteristic resourcefulness and resilience to save themselves from the double threat of disease and starvation. Brazil is getting back to its feet, but with the return of the tourists has come the return of the favela tours, reigniting a longstanding debate as to whether such tours are empowering cultural exchanges which benefit the communities on show or voyeuristic and exploitative human safaris.

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The Problem With Favela Tours

Favela tours—or slum tours as they are known in other parts of the world—might seem a relatively recent trend in tourism, but the idea of poverty being marketed as a touristic experience has its roots in 19th-century England when wealthy Victorians would descend upon London’s underprivileged East End to gaze, ogle, and gawk at the Other.

“Slumming,” as it was known, was a popular weekend pastime, and it has been argued that these encounters helped to break down class divides and awaken a social conscience within the Victorian elite, which led to campaigns that brought improvement in the living conditions for England’s urban poor.

Similar arguments are put forward by marketers of favela tourism today, who claim that profits from their tour support development in the favela by bringing vital income to the community. These arguments are echoed by favela tourists themselves, who want to feel like they have “made a difference” in the lives of favela residents.

This in itself is problematic, reproducing colonial-era binaries of civilized, benevolent saviors from the developed world and helpless, passive actors in the Global South. It’s impossible also to ignore the heavily racialized nature of this encounter: most people living in Rio’s favela are Black, while the overwhelming majority of participants on favela tours are white.

What’s more, several studies have shown that the impact of slum tourism on the local economy is negligible. At best, profits tend to stay in the hands of a small number of local entrepreneurs, and at worst, the revenue goes to non-local operators who run the tours as a business. Some tours are organized by non-profit, community-based organizations like MUF, who use the money to fund important cultural and leisure projects, but the question remains whether there might be value in favela tourism beyond economic benefits.

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Challenging Preconceptions

Fernando Emíro, who runs historical tours through Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, believes that a favela tour should challenge, rather than reproduce, problematic narratives. “Our stories don’t celebrate gunfights or glamour, but the ordinary lives of working people concerned about their families and their friends,” he explains. “The problem is that there are tourists who aren’t interested in an ethical tour. They want to know about the armed violence and the drug trafficking, and these become the commodities that businesses package and sell to them.”

Fernando likens these tours to “human zoos,” exploitative and dehumanizing by their very nature. Such tours are understandingly unpopular with favela residents themselves. Thiago Firmino, an activist from the Santa Marta favela, explains how his community came together to resist efforts from a tour operator to host Jeep tours through their neighborhood. These controversial “poverty safaris” are well-established in other favelas and only reinforce harmful representations of favela life as places of danger and disgrace.

“Tourists arrive with misconceptions and opinions about the favelas,” says Thiago. “My mission is to break down this attitude that favelas are only about drug trafficking.” Thiago runs his own tours, which he calls an “open-air class.” Like Fernando and Marcia at MUF, Thiago’s tour celebrates his favela’s rich culture and history rather than glorifying drug-related violence.

There is evidence to suggest that favela visits can be successful in altering tourist perceptions. A 2013 survey showed that 64% of non-Rio residents who had never been to a favela had an unfavorable opinion about them, mostly informed by mainstream media and movies. Of the non-Rio residents who had visited a favela, this number dropped to 29%, and 44% had a positive attitude towards favelas. But the ease with which tourists accept their guides’ portrait of the favela might not necessarily be a good thing.

The Myth of Poor-but-Happy

By breaking down some stereotypes, well-meaning favela tour guides can run the risk of tapping into others. Incomplete representations of life in the favela that gloss over issues such as poorly built housing, open sewage, and employment discrimination in favor of an upbeat poor-but-happy narrative can trivialize, romanticize, and ultimately depoliticize the poverty experience by ignoring the structural factors that have caused and maintain these living conditions.

As the academic Dr. Melissa Nisbett puts it, “Slums are the result of rampant capitalism, inadequate urban planning, and a lack of investment in essential public services,” but framing them as hives of creativity and contentment “legitimizes social inequality and diverts attention away from the state and its responsibility for poverty reduction.” Such discourses can inhibit development in the favela by drowning out the voices calling for much-needed social change. 

Choosing an Ethical Favela Tour

Navigating the complexities and contradictions in favela tourism requires a delicate balancing act for tour operators. Tours that place too much emphasis on the hardships faced in the favela will be distasteful and exploitative. Those that side-line these issues altogether risk normalizing poverty to the point where it becomes acceptable. But a middle ground does exist, and a handful of favela tours beyond the big companies claim to have found it.

The stories depicted on the MUF’s memory circuit tell the story of the favela resident’s struggles for survival as well as their triumphs. What’s more, the community has been engaged as important stakeholders in the project: older residents were consulted on the subject material for each mural based on their own memories from life in the favela, and oral testimonies passed down by their parents.

Likewise, Fernando and Thiago might choose to portray their neighborhoods in a positive light, but they are also both local activists who use their platforms to fight for improvements in the provision of basic needs. They emphasize the importance of local, favela-born tour guides, something that isn’t always a given, as I found out when I joined a highly rated favela tour on Trip Advisor to find that my guide was a gap-year student from France.

Favela tourism can be ethical, but only where it is organized by activists, not entrepreneurs, who are working to benefit their communities. They should engage the community without exploiting them, allowing residents to take ownership of the narrative. And they should give an honest representation of the challenges of favela life that aren’t divorced from the political factors that have made these conditions so. These tours are out there, but they might not be found on the first page of Trip Advisor. In an industry where inequality is the product, not all tours have been created equal.