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Is Slum Tourism Really All That Bad?

Going to Rio and drinking beer while ignoring the favelas doesn't make you a paragon of virtue. I guess the debate will continue, but it's safe to say it's more complicated than knee jerk cynicism will allow for.

Katie Engelhart

A Rio Favela. Picture by Brian Mier

In June, Brazil found itself awash in tourists, ambling about like walking sacks of cash. Some 3.7 million visitors—including 600,000 (mostly white, mostly rich) foreigners—flooded the country for the month-long 2014 World Cup, spending an estimated 6.7 billion Brazilian reals ($3 billion). In Rio, tourists competed for just 55,400 hotel beds—and as is traditional anywhere with tourists, were completely ripped off. Those who were priced out took to the beaches with sleeping bags. Come June, the Copacabana was studded with bare-footed superfans.

But what about the tourists with thirst for knowledge as well as beer, who wanted something more authentic than the fan zones? Some visitors opted to pass their time in the cozy confines of a bona fide Brazilian favela, like Rocinha, which lies in the southern zone of Rio and is perched on a pretty hillside—and which, just three years ago, was invaded by thousands of elite “pacifying police” and their armored vehicles, as part of an effort to box out ruling drug gangs and bring the rogue neighborhood back under the control of the state. In June, tourists in Rocinha slept in shaded guesthouses, where they dined with welcoming host families and took organized walks along winding residential streets. Many booked their slum rooms online and then reviewed their stays on Tripadvisor.

Two decades ago, Rio’s favelas were touristic no-man’s-lands: wracked by poverty and crime, and subject to the bloody caprice of armed drug traffickers. In 2008, the government began an aggressive “pacification” process that was meant to win back the slums. Critics called it a “counter-insurgency”. Things got much calmer in the favelas, though drug gangs remain and military occupations continue and reports of police abuse increased in the lead-up to the World Cup. By 2013, Brazilian ministers were promoting slums as must-see tourist attractions. Now, about 50,000 people do favela tours each year in Rio alone, says Mark Watson of the UK-based charity Tourism Concern. Most cost about $40 and last three hours—though specialty tours like "Favela Funk Party" (slogan: "Be a Local. Don’t be a Gringo!") might run longer. On its list of top Things to do in Rio de Janeiro City, Lonely Planet says, “the once arduous journey in and out of the favela is now a breeze.”

So-called slum tourism—AKA poverty tourism, reality tourism, poorism, misery tourism, exotic tourism or poverty porn—is on the rise the world over. This leaves lots of people feeling awkward. Is the slum tourist necessarily a voyeur? Are slums tours inherently exploitative? Does it make you a dick to stuff yourself with a picnic on scenic outskirts of an impoverished shantytown?

The last few years have witnessed a slew of oh-my-god-that’s-outrageous news articles, which pick up on the very real sense of exploitation, but it's not really as simple as all that. Modern slum tourism began in the 1980s in Apartheid South Africa, but not as yet another attempt by white people to capitalise on black people's suffering. Rather, black South Africans arranged the tours themselves. They showed people around their racially segregated townships—in part, to educate their white compatriots about how black people lived. When apartheid fell, the tours were used to demonstrate how everything still wasn't totally fixed yet. Today, up to a quarter of visitors to South Africa (some 400,000 tourists a year) go on “township tours.”

But if you go further back in time, it's easy to see why people feel uncomfortable about poorism. Britain has a long history of gawking at poor people. An 1884 New York Times article explained: “the latest fashionable idiosyncrasy in London” was “the visiting of the slums… by parties of ladies and gentlemen for sightseeing.” Long before the gentrification of Hackney, upper class Brits would don “common clothes” and venture out into the East End. Before long, a parallel mania hit the Bowery district of NYC, where voguish New Yorkers could see “Hebrews,” “squalid negro neighborhoods and “tenements... crowded with sweltering humanity.” The author of the NYT piece advised against wandering too far into the slums—for reasons of safety and also since “sensitive olfactories” might be offended. One modern poverty themed hotel in South Africa has managed to solve this problem by allowing guests to experience the authenticity of a stay in "the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless access!” These days you can experience poverty without even bothering to look down your nose at any real poor people.

Today, people go to Manila’s Smokey Mountain slum, to watch “scavengers” rummage through piles of trash. Or Kibera, Kenya, whose slum excursions are reportedly gaining popular ground over wildlife tours. Or Bwaise, Uganda and its infamous red light district. Here people take slum selfies and remark that the residents show a such an entrepreneurial spirit, in spite of it all. Hopefully, they then feel that they have successfully transcended on-the-path tourism.

How do the residents feel? In a beautifully written New York Times op-ed from 2010, Kennedy Odede, then a junior at Wesleyan University, described the tourists who used to visit his hometown of Kibera:

I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly, a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on... Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.

More recently, slum tours have been slammed for making poverty seem exotic, misrepresenting local customs, exploiting residents and doing not much of anything to improve things on the ground.

But is it all so very bad? According to the University of Potsdam’s Dr. Fabian Frenzel, who has researched favela tourism, the answer is, "No". Frenzel says that initially, most favela tour operators initially came “from outside the favela”—and kept profits outside too. But that has changed. Many companies now employ residents and encourage tourists to buy stuff from local shops. Criticism of the favela tour concept has also pushed companies to give more to the communities (some have set up sister charities)—and to be more financially transparent. Today, cagey tourists who aren’t quite sure whether slum tours are kosher are reassured by self-aware tour operators who promise to portray slums in their uncomfortable entirety—and to work collaboratively with locals. Appeals to responsible and sustainable slumming themselves become part of the marketing pitch.

Frenzel says that many Brazilians are “surprised by the attention—which has to do, historically, with a lot of disregard” for favelas. Some are grateful for a steady flow of tourists, which makes it harder for the government to cover-up areas of impoverishment and for police to hide the effects of their aggressive pacification campaigns.

Of course, these same benefits can be double-edged, or just plain bullshit. Tourism Concern’s Mark Watson says that companies often exaggerate the amount that they donate to communities. In other situations, tour companies fund their own schools or orphanages—but then treat them as open-door pit stops for slum tourists. School classes are disrupted so that kids can sing for visitors. Orphans are doled out to whoever wants to pay to cuddle impoverished babies.

But at the macro level, creating jobs and stimulating economies is a good thing. The World Trade Organization stresses, “Tourism in many developing and least developed countries is the most viable and sustainable economic development option, and in some countries, the main source of foreign exchange earnings.” In 20 of the world’s 48 least developed countries, tourism is the first or second source of export earnings. Even that poverty themed hotel in South Africa is creating jobs.

Is it any better to travel somewhere poor and spend your entire time on a beach while pretending that slums don’t exist next door? I hate to say it, but going to Rio and drinking beer while ignoring the favelas doesn't make you a paragon of virtue. I guess the debate will continue, but it's safe to say it's more complicated than knee jerk cynicism will allow for.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter.