Favela tourism is all the rage. Tours operating in impoverished self-built settlements have multiplied in dozens of countries, and the mainstream media and intellectual press alike have taken note. Slum tourism has been criticized as a perverse form of capitalist poverty voyeurism and, conversely, sensationalized as a transformative opportunity for local grassroots entrepreneurism. Neither of these extreme viewpoints accurately represent the exploding market universally, in part because tourist consumption in relation to “the slum” is as diverse as the self-built settlements themselves. As I’ve argued before, tourists often walk away from favela tours in Rio de Janeiro full of misinformation—which unfortunately gets reproduced on their personal blogs—however the likening of all tours to a poverty safari is reductionist and disingenuous.
Researchers reacted relatively quickly to the surge of slum tourism (for examples see: Freire-Medeiros 2006, 2009; Diekmann and Hannam 2012, Hernández-García 2013; also special issue of Tourism Geographies edited by Frenzel and Koens 2012), but there is as of yet a lack of quality, in-depth investigation across geographical difference. One team of international, interdisciplinary researchers has taken up a comparative study of slum tourism. The project titled “Slum Tourism in the Americas: Commodifying Urban Poverty and Violence” is a collaboration between researchers at the Universities of Amsterdam, Munich, and the London School of Economics. The project website describes the research as such:
The research aims to theorize the commodification of urban poverty and violence in the context of global mobilities and shifts towards urban political economies of spectacle. Focusing on three sites, this comparative ethnographic project will explore how globally circulating representations of poverty and violence both reproduce and challenge urban inequalities. It will investigate how the urban poor, tourists, tour operators and state actors participate in the unequal encounters involved in so called “slum tourism”, bringing an actor-focused, on-the-ground and longitudinal approach to the encounters. Including both commercial and grassroots tours, the research places emphasis on the self-positioning and agency of the urban poor within the interplay between residents, tourists, tour operators and state actors. The project’s comparative approach enables a nuanced analysis of the mechanisms and institutions that affect the development of marginalised urban areas. The research has a twin focus on the political economy of slum tours and their representational performative politics.
The project will provide an ethnographic analysis and systematic comparison of the “slum tourist encounter” in three cities in the Americas: Mexico City, Kingston, and Rio de Janeiro.
Alessandro Angelini, currently a post-doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and working with one of the project’s principle investigators, Gareth Jones (disclosure: my PhD supervisor at the LSE), is leading the fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro. I had the opportunity to interview Alessandro in April.
Your current research is part of an international team studying slum tourism and the commodification of poverty in Rio de Janeiro, Kingston, Mexico City and Los Angeles. The premise of a comparative model suggests that we should understand slum tourism as a global, or at least a regional, phenomenon. Speaking from your expertise in Rio de Janeiro, what commonalities do you expect to see in other cities, and what do you think may be unique to Rio?
I think we are already seeing certain themes emerging. One is the way the past is something to be narrativized as part of the tourism script of a favela/ghetto/barrio. So, in Rio there are patrimonialist discourses, like Providência as the “first favela” or even the reverence toward all things Michael Jackson in Santa Marta. In Kingston, we are seeing reggae heritage as a feature of tours of Trenchtown, along with visits to places mentioned in song lyrics or to Bob Marley’s early haunts. In Tepito, a barrio in central Mexico City, there are commemorations of the area’s tradition of radical politics.
There is also a “Black Atlantic” angle running through, at least Rio and Kingston. We will be taking our visiting participants to Cais do Valongo, for instance. To get some sense of the historical importance of the urban periphery in Rio. [Cais do Valongo was the early 19th century entry point for half a million Africans brought to Brazil as slaves. The site was buried by the end of the century and only recently excavated by archeologists and preserved by the Rio de Janeiro municipal government. Cais do Valongo now forms part of the “Circuit of African Heritage” promoted as part of the downtown port redevelopment project, Porta Maravilha.]
Violence and security is also a theme across all cities. [Rio’s City Hall] is pushing tourism in pacified favelas, and I’d be interested to learn what governments in the other cities are doing.
Rio does stand apart in that it has a much longer history of favela tourism, its higher profile, and the diversity of (1) communities that can be visited, and (2) kinds of tours available, from safari-style jeep tours to community guide-run walks to ‘eco-trail’ hikes leading through favelas.
For many years favela tourism was thought as an activity for foreigners. To this day Cariocas, Rio natives, joke about how gringos love favelas. But as you noted in a recent article in O Dia, there has been a spike in the number of Brazilians who take tours of Rio’s favelas, particularly in Zona Sul. I have seen the same in Complexo do Alemão in Zona Norte, the site of a gondola transport system that was billed as a major tourist attraction by politicians. How should we interpret this data? Is there a difference between a foreign tourist visiting a favela and a Brazilian? Do more Brazilian tourists in the favelas increase the potential for cultural change?
Yes, there seem to be increasing numbers of Brazilians visiting favelas. No one is really doing a statistical analysis, but there are enough accounts to be fairly certain this is happening. Brazilian tourists are not from all over the country, though. The majority appears to be Paulista [from the city São Paulo] or Gaúcho [from the southern most state of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul]. Overall, they are not much different from other [foreign] tourists. A few guides and residents have mumbled about how prejudiced some Paulistas were, however. As in, they weren’t impressed with the level of poverty, that they expected more misery. (In this sense, the Porta dos Fundos sketch “Pobreza” is brilliantly on point.)
Between 2008 and 2010 you conducted 18 months of ethnographic research on Project Morrinho, focusing on how young people in a Zona Sul favela produce urban space and experience everyday life in Rio de Janeiro through an elaborate role playing game that includes the construction and maintenance of a model favela and city. How was it to return to the Rio, to live in the same favela where you conducted your PhD research? In relation to tourism and dismantling of urban frontiers, has much changed in the past five years?
I arrived back in the community I called Morro do Saqualé in my PhD thesis during the World Cup last June. The housing market was very tight, and rents had ballooned in the 4 years I was away. Just trying to secure a place to rent was a process that took 3 months.
Tourism in Saqualé is squarely centered around Project Morrinho. The collective is largely run day-to-day by one
of the original youth, and he has his friends assist whenever there is activity, like a large visit or journalist interview or film production. Morrinho tourism is almost totally dependent on a couple private tour companies that bring visitors to the community as part of a day-long tour, including Cristo and Sugarloaf. So Morrinho and Saqualé fit into the “favela” slot of a comprehensive Rio tour day. There are inconveniences attached to this arrangement, such as that the project only gets paid for their labor at the end of each month. They have expanded the amount of merchandise on offer for visitors, but I am not sure how profitable that venture is.
Has anything surprised you while conducting this research?
I have been surprised by the expansion of favela tourism beyond Zona Sul. I thought the proximity and relative safety of the ZS communities would comprise nearly all the tourism market, but even favelas in Tijuca [in the North Zone] and as far [West] as Vila Kennedy have offerings. Yesterday, a bookstore seller gave me a tourism map (the cartoonish kind covered in business ads) because I told her about my research. Sure enough, on the front cover of the map, front and center between “Hang gliding” and “Samba” was “Favela tour.” So it seems the favela is not marginal in all cases…
For many years there has been a debate about the ethics of favela tourism. Does it necessarily constitute poverty voyeurism? What would a best-practices model look like for a favela tour company? After studying the Morrinho project from inception to its transformation as an international object of art and consumption, and in the middle of your current research, how would you respond to those questions?
I see the term “sustainability” get latched onto anything these days, and it’s not surprising to see it as a label for a certain kind of favela tourism. I’m still not sure what is “sustained” besides the tourism business itself.
I dislike a best-practices model for anything, but I would like to see more community-based tours based on local histories. It would shake up a bit the notion that one favela is any favela, and it would be good for the business as well if visitors come to recognize that there is a diversity of local practices and histories to encounter.
One of the major challenges is to get out of the paradigm of tourism as “value extraction.” I’ve witnessed many moments of ambivalence over what precisely is being sold, and why does it have value. Too many guides, whether from within or outside the community, are capitalizing on the notion that they provide safety and legitimacy, even as they affirm that the locale is safe for visitors. So much of the tours are filled with empty silence from the guides, which is partly not to intrude on tourists’ own experience and impressions. But the explanatory script is often lacking or assumes things I don’t think an average tourist comes knowing, like what an Associação de Moradores is or how the settlement was started and grew over time.
Drawing on the Morrinho experience, I would also like to see more favela tours emphasize aspects of residents’ life that are not merely about survival and well-being (clichés of pointing out the jumble of power lines or open sewers). Favelas are much more than mere dormitories for the laboring classes, but I don’t hear enough about what the everyday struggles consist of.