Poverty for the CameraFavela tourism is booming in Brazil
Caipirinha, football and Carnaval draw thousands of tourists to Rio de Janeiro every year. But these days many want to see the other side of the city: the poverty in the favelas. Social geographer Malte Steinbrink explains what is attracting visitors and who benefits. Read More
Mr Steinbrink, your research explores slum tourism. What is that exactly?
It is urban poverty tourism. In countries like Brazil, India and South Africa, tour operators organise trips to marginalised parts of the city. Tourists are picked up by minibus in front of their hotels in the morning and take a day trip to the slums, favelas, or townships.
It sounds kind of like a visit to the zoo.
I hear that accusation a lot. But for most tourists, it is more than just a human safari. They go to the favelas because they want to see what life in Rio de Janeiro is really like, far from the glittering lights of Copacabana. The slum is seen as the ultimate location for the “other”. Corrugated iron, a fetid odour, filth – these are real. Journalists in particular criticise slum tourists, denouncing them as immoral. I find that astonishing, since they themselves were the pioneer slummers. And their documentaries are what attracted the tourists in the first place.
Don’t you do the same thing as a researcher?
Yes. That is actually how I got interested in the topic. I spent a long time doing research in Cape Town. I was really surprised when I discovered the first slum tourists in a township. And I admit it was a bit of an affront to my vanity as a researcher.
Reports on the favelas almost always show drugs, violence and criminality. Are you surprised that this interests tourists?
No. Demand for favela tourism has risen enormously in the wake of films like “City of God”. People are fascinated by danger and tour guides exploit that thrill factor to their advantage. A few years ago on a tour through a favela that had not been pacified, we were driven at breakneck speed on the back of motorcycle taxis along steep switchbacks. We saw a group of young men armed with assault rifles walking towards us and a coffin being borne through the narrow alleyways. Our guide said: “You’re in luck. You don’t get to see this kind of thing every day, right?”
Santa Marta, the first pacified favela, is a kind of Disneyland slum today.
In the run up to the World Cup and the Olympics, more and more tourists are going to the favelas. How do Brazilian politicians feel about that?
For a long time, city policy was not in favour of slum tourism. Favelas stand for dirt, muck, criminality. The feeling was that tourists should go admire Sugar Loaf Mountain, not the city’s apparent eyesores. But that has changed.
What has changed?
Today the city is using favela tourism as part of an image campaign in the run up to the World Cup and the Olympics. There are around 750 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, 100 of which will have been pacified by 2016. The first pacified favela, Santa Marta, is a kind of Disneyland slum today. The houses are brightly painted; the favela is a perfect photo motif. Today the city has gotten in on the game and organises favela tours itself. Instead of violence and squalor, tourists now see capoeira, samba, and football. The city is staging the pacified favelas as an example of successful policy.
Is the government simply trying to improve the city’s image?
No, there is more to it. It is also about the ruthless interests of the real estate sector. The “pacification” of the favelas has freed up space that used to be no-go areas for investors. As a result, rents have gone up and residents been displaced. The favelas are undergoing gentrification.
Many tour operators claim that tourism improves the living conditions in the favelas. Is that true?
The idea that poverty tourism decreases poverty is paradoxical. The attraction would ultimately fall victim to its own success. And the tour operators are the ones who really profit and not the favelas themselves.
We have talked about tourists, tour operators and politicians. What about the people who live in the favelas?
Studies have shown that many favela inhabitants think the attention of tourists is a good thing, because they are no longer marginalised when the public shows an interest in their living conditions. Some develop a sense of pride in their quarter. Many don’t really care. But some complain that tourists stick their digital cameras through their windows and right into their cooking pots.
What do you think?
I am afraid people don’t really see the real problem anymore. Poverty is no longer viewed as the expression of global inequality, but as an interesting cultural lifestyle along the lines of “poor but happy”. On the other hand, I think it is good for tourists to see that the favelas are not horror slums, but the living space of perfectly normal people.