This is part two of a series of posts discussing the representation of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, favela tours and the tourist narrative. In part one I sketched out some of the controversy in the global debate surrounding the definition of slums. Grounding this debate in Rio de Janeiro is especially relevant given the current paradigm of urban renewal. The representation of Rio’s favelas in popular media, everyday interactions, and political, professional and academic discourses reproduces the spatial relationships between favelas and their surrounding areas (the formal city, the asfalto). These relationships affect the daily lives of just about everyone in the city—rich, poor and everyone in between; native, migrant and tourist; politicians, day laborers and the unemployed. The way one feels about Rio’s favelas impacts how one experiences the city. As a new world power, the sixth largest national economy, and with the FIFA World Cup and Summer Olympics in the near future, how people experience Rio de Janeiro is a major concern for Brazilian politicians, planners, investors and ordinary citizens.

The view from Cantagalo overlooking Ipanema is a favorite amongst tourist. It’s easily accessible by a recently built elevator that saves residents a steep hike uphill.

The idea of looking at the representation of Rio’s favelas in tourist-produced media is simple: tourists are sold their favela experience by guidebooks, hostel employees, tourist agencies and their websites. They arrive with preconceptions based on popular media (movies like City of God, news media, TV and the internet), other tourists, Brazilian nationals, and their scholastic and personal histories. While on the tour they experience the favela through a narrative provided by their guide and through their own discerning senses. They then consolidate this narrative with the influences mentioned above and reproduce it through blogs and online photo sharing. As tourists are not directly involved in the political subjectivity of favela representation, and as they did not grow up with the locally constructed socio-spatial prejudices, it stands to reason that they should easily adopt the narrative provided to them by their guides, tourist agencies and others parroting official state discourse about the new era dawning in Rio de Janeiro.

Methodological disclaimer: this is not an academic study. I did not collect and analyze data systematically and what I write here should not be considered conclusive. It’s a blog, and should be taken as a thinking exercise and public debate. In preparing for these posts, I’ve read a few dozen blogs written by tourists, checked out the websites of some of the tour agencies and guides that offer favela tours, and read relevant travel forums that discuss the politics of favela tours and recommend ‘good’ (read ethical) guides as opposed to ‘bad’ (read exploitative) agencies.

Today I want to start small and lay out a few patterns that I saw across the travel blogs.

Overwhelmingly most tourists, who visit favelas in Rio de Janeiro and then blog about it, go to Rocinha. While favelas Vidigal

Landscape images from above show the size of the favela, as well as prime location.

and Cantagalo each popped up in a generic internet search, I had to seek out non-Rocinha experiences by searching specifically for favelas that I knew to be accessible to everyday tourists (such as Santa Marta). This is not particularly surprising, as Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio, receives the most attention from academics and news media alike, and was safe while under the control of Nem and the ADA (Amigos dos Amigos) even prior to the government military takeover.

I quickly noticed that many tourist bloggers are aware that favela tours are something of a controversial topic. More than a few opened their entries with comments about poverty voyeurism, and a couple travellers left companions behind who were either uninterested in visiting a favela or ethically opposed. All of these bloggers ended up stressing that their tour was an ethical one, meaning that their guide was either a resident of the favela or was well liked and respected by members of the favela community. They also reject the notion that they were participating in the making of a human zoo with anecdotes of supporting the local economy, visiting an art studio or samba school, and chatting with street vendors. As one traveller writes, “I’m sure that the favela could be turned into a human zoo but it definitely wasn’t. In fact, it felt like we went to debunk all of the myths about this place. […] Everyone was friendly and acted as if we were guests and not invaders. […] I don’t even think ‘tour’ is the right word. We spent a morning in the favela and met some people. And I learned a lot.” On the flip side, others note the moments of awkwardness when they wandered through a private home, a group of gringos traipsing single-file through someone’s living room.

Photos of this group of children pop up in many of the blogs. They play percussion out of recycled materials and pose for pics with the tour groups.

Photo of small boy, part of the larger group pictured above. From a different blog.

Most tourists stress how normal the favela is while simultaneously in awe of its size, complexity and exotic qualities. The favela is represented as natural but different; self-contained but connected to the outside city. Nearly every blog I read on Rocinha

described the favela as a functioning small city, complete with its own banks, stores, schools and police stations: “Patrick [the tour guide] explained that the favela has everything available that a regular city does – you can still purchase anything you would normally.” Rocinha residents are said to be employed in the low-paid service sector and they ‘commute’ to the wealthy neighbourhoods close by in the larger city.

These photos that show homes seemingly stacked vertically up the hill are frequently accompanied by commentaries about the illegal nature of the settlements, that residents are technically squatters, and that their homes are in danger of being flattened by mudslides.

These same tourists are intrigued by the parallel legal and police structures, particularly in Rocinha where many tours were operating well before the government’s pacification campaign. In this narrative the favela is “completely self-governed”; and, absent of the state, the drug lords make the rules (knowledge of the police militias that now control over half of Rio’s favelas is lacking). One blogger informs us that “not many people in the favela do drugs, but most sell them”. Another claims that people caught stealing in the favela have their hands cut off! Understandably they are shocked to see adolescent males carting around assault rifles, but they parrot their tour guides who assure them that “both the police and the drug lords rule the same way, by intimidation.” They pointedly tell their readers that despite stereotypes, favelas are safer than the city due to the strict rule of gangs and strong sense of community.

Tourists are always amused by the electricity poles in Rio’s larger favelas. Although electricity has been ‘regularized’ in many of Rio’s favelas (i.e. residents now pay based on usage), most tourists say that these are illegal hook ups.

These are just a few of the patterns that show up in the favela tourist narrative. In the following post (go to part III), I ask how we might situate them in the larger political struggle to (re)define favela space.

Follow me on twitter for more on Rio de Janeiro, favelas and politics: @yosoytucker

12 thoughts on “Remaking Rio: favela tourism and the tourist narrative, part II

  1. Good work, Tucker. Definitely good to keep a pulse on this stuff.

    “Not many people in the favela do drugs, but most sell them.” Good grief.

    The hope is that those offering tours of favelas are doing the simple work of sincerely acquainting visitors with life in the place they’re visiting. (Some do a better job than others clearly).

    It’s interesting that favela tourism puts tourism in general into more clear focus, in the sense that all tourism can be voyeuristic by it’s very nature. Probably not a stretch to say that most people privileged enough to travel (be a “tourist”) probably do treat the people and places they visit in that sort of detached and impersonal way to some extent. It’s all in the level of engagement, empathy and mindfulness a visitor (or tour company/guide) can actually employ.

    The way Santa Marta does it (in particular Gilson da Silva of Rio Top Tour who I ran into while on an errand for our Ms Navarro-Sertich) seems as right on track as can be. Evidently it took some growing pains to get there from what Gilson told me.

    • I agree, Andrew. I think that when we look at acts of tourism, and motivation of tourists, then we end up with an industry of voyeurism. In Beverly Hills, tourists drive around with maps indicating where the famous live, trying to peek in the windows. Most middle/upper class suburbs in the United States organize annual house tours where people display their private spaces for neighbors and strangers. And perhaps the most celebrated urban ‘tourist’ is the flaneur, who peer into the soul of a city by observing its people and places. I don’t think there is any inherent ethical dilemma in exploring a favela as a foreigner; which is why I don’t fully enter that debate. (Like you say, it’s in the details. There are those agencies which adopt a profit-driven model who have recognized the demand for favela tours and create their product. Those agencies are not ‘of the favela’ and their claims to support the local community is a marketing ploy, in my opinion. On the other hand there are many independent tour guides and a couple agencies that are based and run by residents, and therefore the profits stay in the community even with a market-driven approach).

      I think a far more interesting question is what are the effects of favel tourism? Does it mean something for the larger urban environment? Strangely many foreigners have less apprehension about entering a favela than the carioca upper middle and elite classes. In some of the discussion forums, the most vehemently opposed to favela tours seem to be Brazilians themselves who live in the asfalto-cidade; and the creator of Favela Paintball in Santa Marta says he has a real hard time convincing hostel owners that playing paintball in a favela isn’t morally deplorable. I think this is a result of how favela space is culturally defined in Rio: a favela is where poor people live and suffer; it’s where bandidos find refuge and criminals rule. A favela is not a place of recreation; and visiting a favela to have FUN can only be thought of as absurd, disrespectful and reprehensible.

      But if the goal of the urban renewal paradigm in Rio is urban social cohesion, that line of thought has to change. Now the danger of approaching the problem with market-based solutions is what Neil Smith call the Revanchist City, one in which capital appropriates public urban space and creates a bourgeois playground. We are currently seeing intense gentrification and dispossession in Rio, so I think this is where social scientists should look for struggle. Is there an alternative model? And what does it look like?

  2. HI, all very interesting. thank you. do you really think gentrification is already “intense”? I’d like to know more.
    Some US university students spoke w me recently, and when I went back to give them some background on how it was to live in Rio pre-2008, they seemed very surprised. I think outsiders have very little idea of the dramatic changes we have experienced, regarding security and access to parts of the city. I recently wrote a personal essay on my own experience. If you read Portuguese, take a look here http://papodehomem.com.br/quando-a-gringa-sobe-um-morro-carioca/

    • Hi Julia. I’m familiar with your blog, and I appreciate your perspective. I think the major question that drives your investigation and writing, ‘will it last?’, is underlying a lot of the discussions and research on Rio right now (both for the skeptics, the optimists, and realists). Now at the risk of straying way off topic of the post…

      I’m aware that there are many Brazilian academics that think gentrification is a US and European phenomenon, and that it’s a model that cannot conform to Rio. It is also a term that has lost specificity in the past decade, because it gets thrown around a lot (indeed much of the ‘young creative class’ in US cities speak of gentrification as a good thing because they relate it with the benefits of urban renewal). While I don’t think that gentrification explains all of the dispossession in Rio, it certainly is real and has real effects. I know you reviewed the NY Fed Reserve working paper on your blog (for others, you can find it online by searching for “Crime, House Prices, and Inequality: The Effect of UPPs in Rio”), which found a negative correlation between crime and UPP installations, and a simultaneous positive correlation between lower crime (result of UPP) and increase in property values. They conclude that property price inequality is greatly reduced in the same housing market. Creating a gini coefficient for property prices is clever, but it’s also misleading because it’s not an adequate measure of socioeconomic inequality. Most low-income households rent, and even within the favelas there is well documented disparity between those who live in their own home and those who rent from others. I think that gentrification is a result that necessarily follows these real estate patterns. Gentrification is obviously not the best model for understanding the physical acts of eviction and large-scale redevelopment of favela-space in or near the port area or the Maracaná stadium, but it is present in those spaces and throughout the city. What gentrification looks like inside favela-space is an interesting question, and I know some folks are looking at that. When I visited Complexo do Alemão shortly after the teleferico opened, For Sale and For Rent signs were concentrated around the new stations, and I wondered about how the infrastructure changes the immediate housing demographics.

      Gentrification does not mean increasing inequality, so it is very possible that poor people are dispossessed of their homes and forced out while income disparity is decreasing and quality of live is improving in Rio in general. Unpacking those complexities are essential when debating gentrification, and I’m interested to see what comes of it. I think there will be some papers presented on Rio at a conference on gentrification in the global south to be held in April in Santiago de Chile (see link below; they are supposed to podcast everything).

  3. Tucker, “This is not an academic study” but it is a very interesting work. Thank you for sharing it.

    I suggest this good paper:

    “A Construção da Favela Carioca como Destino Turístico”. It helps to better understand how tourists and moradores look at each other.

    Click to access files.do


    • Thanks Simone. The paper you suggest is interesting, although it feels unfinished. I know Freire-Madeiros came out with a book about the research project (although I can’t find it here in the UK), so I’m assuming she develops her conclusions further elsewhere. Her fieldwork is pre-UPP, so it is interesting to have this research as a point of contrast. The paper discusses the production of favela as a product for tourist consumption, and it connects it to the global phenomena. She doesn’t actually go into resident-tourist interaction or construction of the favela resident as part of the consumer experience.

      She seems to be writing for the Brazilian middle class who are perpetually complexed at why anyone would want to pay for a tour of a favela. This is especially evident in an interview with the talk show host Jô Soares (see:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pvtA80g2zM). Deep-rooted prejudices are present in Soares’ remarks even as he criticizes foreigners who ‘pay to witness misery’. It doesn’t matter that Freire-Madeiros insists that the tourists were actually quite self-reflecting about their act of consumption or that there are examples of favela communities effectively capitalizing on the demand and retaining profits w/in the neighborhood; Soares argues that these tourists are exploitative and perverted because he struggles to see the favela as anything but misery, poverty and crime.

      In the paper you recomened Freire-Madeiros herself confesses to having similar suspicions about favela tourism before she conducted her field work. Perhaps then, in addition to asking questions about the ethics of foreign tourists visiting favelas, she should explore the ethics of privileged Cariocas refusing to enter a favela unless they are doing charity work.

      • Thanks Tucker. Very interesting. I do not think as Soares. It is sure that a part of tourists visiting favelas have an exploitative point of view but there are a number f good initatives community based that are important to help people from very diferent contexts to meet.

        In a city with large areas of urban segregation and strong stigmas against the urban poor it can not be a negative thing factor the need of meeting and knowledge. Maybe it can help erradicating prejudices and fear of knowledge the others living in morro or in asfalto.

        My point of view is that are good initiatives and bad initiatives (like the war games you talked about in the first part of the post).

        This is a great work realized by an Italian sociologist friend of mine, about the experience of the meeting since community tourism in Rio’s favelas


        Click to access elisa_spampinato.pdf

        Another thing: I agree with you that it would be very interesting to investigate the situation pre and post pacification.


  4. Tucker, all very very interesting, thank you for your comments as well as news of the conference. I think it will be quite difficult to prevent people being pushed out of more central urban spaces to more peripheral, cheaper ones, unfortunately. One consolation is that poverty is lessening overall, with the growth of the new middle class. So the phenomenon is occurring at a somewhat fortuitous moment. I look forward to reading more of your work, please stay in touch and let’s meet sometime when you are in Rio!

  5. Pingback: Favela tourism. Really? | travelola

  6. Pingback: Remaking Rio: favela tourism and the tourist narrative, part III «

  7. Pingback: Remaking Rio: favela tourism and the tourist narrative: part I «

  8. Pingback: Are favela tours ethical? - Olympic Wanderings

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