Latin Americanist Lunch: Favela Tourism

Recently I attended the final Latin Americanist Lunch of the semester. The guest speaker was Bianca Freire-Medeiros, a professor and writer from Sao Paulo, Brazil. She gave a presentation titled “Twenty-five Years of Favela Tourism: Continuities, Changes, and Challenges.” I was interested in learning more about this topic, as I had read “The Spectacular Favela” in my “Understanding the Global Community” class last year. The book explored favelas as a spectacle for the rest of the world, and explained the history of tourism in Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil.

Freire-Medeiros also focused her talk on Rocinha, as this was allegedly the first favela to be marketed as a tourist attraction. It is located in southern Rio, and is home to around 70,000 people. She explained how dangerous and unglamorous favelas are, and then explained how they are portrayed in the media.

In reality, violence and crime runs rampant in favelas. In fact, gangs are such a staple of favelas that they form a type of informal government. Gangs take care of mail delivery and trash collection, trying to gain the trust and support of residents in their territory. Ironically, police are often extremely corrupt, and generally distrusted. I remember watching a documentary last year about gangs in favelas. It highlighted the police as violent and susceptible to bribery, while showing the gangs as peace-keepers.

Apparently, this drama is what attracts tourists to the favelas and allows tourism companies to exist there. Especially with the Olympic Games and World Cup taking place in Rio, there has recently been a huge rise in tourism. It is not unusual to see groups of tourists, armed with cameras, riding in brand new Jeep Wranglers down favela streets. The favela way of life is incredibly romanticized by tourism companies, which paint an unrealistic picture of the slums. Many of the tourists are excited by the “danger” of venturing into a favela. Tour guides capitalize on this, frequently telling visitors to keep their heads down and move quickly and quietly when they are on foot.

Freire-Medeiros also mentioned the romanticizing of favelas in popular media. She played clips from several rap songs that make reference to favelas as exciting, cool places, and showed us the website for a clothing line that markets “favela” style clothing. Apparently there is a ritzy bar in Paris called “Favela Chic.” With this kind of advertising, all the tourism industry has to do is set up camp in Rio and wait for the customers to pour in.

However, favela tourism isn’t black-and-white. While it is largely resented by residents, in some cases it helps them. Freire-Medeiros explained that sometimes favela residents open their own tours, offering an “authentic experience.” This helps them to make a living, even though it does come at the expense of their neighbors.

Still, it can be widely agreed that favela tourism is exploitive and a negative phenomenon. At the end of her presentation, Freire-Medeiros asked us to brainstorm ways to put an end to this industry. No definitive answers were given. I think that a great deal of interest in favelas comes from its mention in popular media, and that if this disappears then public interest will gradually fade. But this is easier said than done—where there is money to be made, business will thrive. And unfortunately, favelas are clearly a lucrative attraction.

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