Favela tourism is here to stay; and despite widespread ethical concerns, it’s booming business. Accordingto recent numbers collected by SuperVia, the private company that operates the Teleférico do Alemão (gondola-transport system that links five favela hilltops in the Complexo do Alemão with a nearby train station), the novelty of soaring high above one of the largest concentrated favela territories in Rio de Janeiro is attracting more tourists than the iconic Cristo o Redentor (Christ the Redeemer statue) and Pão de Açúcar (Suglar Loaf Mountain).
SuperVia says that the teleférico averages 12,000 unique riders per day, and on weekends they calculate that 60% of riders, or about 7,000 people, are tourists visiting the 12 neighborhoods that make up Complexo do Alemão. During the same time of year, Cristo averages 4,500 a day and Pão de Açúcar averages between 5 and 6 thousand.
The Rio Ministry of Tourism has always been convinced that the Teleférico would be a tourist attraction. They sold the expensive transport systems to the public as such, even when local residents protested its construction in the historic favela Providência and more recently in Rocinha. The minister is so excited about these numbers, that he pledged to print tourist maps of Alemão detailing seven walking tours of interest, for example the main market area or the filming location for the popular telenovela (soap opera), Avenida Brasil.
Can this be true? Can a 16-minute ride in a cable car located well outside the established tourist district attract more visitors than two of the most famous (if not the most famous) tourist excursions in Rio de Janeiro? According to the numbers, yes, but if you are imagining a mix of 7,000 young and rowdy Australian backpackers, clunky-camera toting Japanese, sock-with-sandals Germans and conspicuously loud North Americans, think again.
First lets look at the numbers and the statistical definition of ‘tourist’ according to SuperVia. The transport company collects data about how many riders use the cable car, but they don’t collect any demographic data about the actual users. There are three ticket categories. First, residents of Complexo do Alemão are entitled to one roundtrip ride daily for free (essentially to and from work or school). Each additional fare costs BR$1. Second, holders of a Bilhete Unico metro transport card (essentially a pre-paid municipal public transportation card that anyone with a national identity number (CPF) can get) may ride for BR$1 each way. Third, non-residents and those without a Bilhete Unico card pay BR$5 for a one-way ticket (BR$10 roundtrip). The simple math of determining tourists who take the gondola therefore is total number of riders minus the sum of resident-riders and Bilhete Unico users; or, how many users pay BR$5 for a ticket.
I’m no specialist on tourism, but this seems like an awfully broad definition of tourist. Essentially they are equating ‘tourist’ with ‘outsider’, which may or may not be an acceptable way of measuring tourist visits, as it is perfectly conceivable that some people entering Complexo do Alemão via the Teleférico have some reason other than leisure to be there.
Regardless of whether or not we accept the number crunching, I find the profile of the tourists visiting Alemão most interesting. Based on my own observational data, along with observations of contacts within Alemão and media reports, the majority of tourists that are visiting the Complexo do Alemão via the Teleférico are not foreign, but Brazilian nationals. The journalist Ludmilla de Lima, who wrote about tourism in Alemão for O Globo, reported that most of the tourist she saw were Cariocas (from Rio de Janeiro city), Fluminenses (from Rio de Janeiro province), and Brazilians from other parts of the country, in that order.
The headlines about the Teleférico-cum-tourist attraction might in reality be pointing to a more important cultural shift in Rio de Janeiro. Until recently, many middle-class Brazilians believed that if someone who lived in the ‘asfalto’ (the formally planned city) entered a favela it was to buy drugs. The city’s favelas were so terribly and unjustly stigmatized that to simply enter the space was associated with criminality. Now there is mounting evidence that when the state re-territorializes favela-space through military occupation (‘pacification’), transportation, housing, and sanitary infrastructure; and a sustained media campaign, it might provide the minimum conditions necessary to make formal city dwellers feel comfortable enough, perhaps entitled, to enter formerly no-go zones. The consequences of spatially redefining ‘favelas’ (or perhaps just some of the favelas) go well beyond usurping a 30-meter tall statue of Jesus Christ.
To follow my research in Alemão and Rio de Janeiro, look for me on twitter @yosoytucker