The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was the first time news broke internationally that tourists were choosing to stay in Rio de Janeiro's favelas. The sprawling, hillside communities, where nearly 1.4 million Brazilians reside, were said to be safe for lodging after controversial "pacification" efforts by police, offering a cheaper, "more authentic" experience than Rio's beachside hotels. What followed were headlines ranging from the more culturally inept (CNN: "Rio's slums the hot World Cup destination?") to forward-thinking (FastCo: "What Happens When World Cup Tourists Flood Rio's Favelas Looking for Cheap Rooms?").
But as Rio prepares for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the city and its favelas seem to be stuck in a news cycle K-hole. Images of teens brandishing assault rifles and stories of shootouts between drug traffickers have struck an ominous tone, with coverage suggesting the Marvelous City is on the brink of civil war—right around the corner from where Simone Biles will be dismounting her balance beam.
But for the mostly middle-class residents living in favelas closer to the city's center, this is not an accurate portrait of everyday life. While they recognize that violence persists on the city's outskirts (and, yes, sometimes in their own backyards), many still see the Olympics as another opportunity to not only capitalize on the coming hordes of visitors, but also to further test what tourism can do for their communities—even after the Olympics end.
Dodging buses and winding through the narrow curves of Rocinha on a recent afternoon, one mototáxi driver said that he's noticed more gringos as of late hopping on the back of the mopeds that transport residents up Brazil's largest favela. "They love it here," he added.
We rode along with André Felix, a 25-year-old Rocinha native, who gives tours of the favela when he's not waiting tables at a fine-dining restaurant near the Olympic Village. He said the World Cup was the first time he had seen such an influx of visitors to his home, and from that came more outside attention.
"People buy packages to tour Rocinha before they even arrive in Brazil," he told VICE. "Sometimes, those are led by guides who aren't from here, and they give misinformation." That led him to join forces with Rocinha by Rocinha, a resident-run group started in the months before the World Cup that provides free (and tip-based) walking tours of the favela.
As we ventured deeper into Rocinha, Felix pointed out other ways residents here are taking advantage of tourism. Outside of one apartment, a blown-up poster informed visitors in English that the view from the roof was photo-worthy, with a souvenir shop awaiting upstairs. Down another alleyway, Felix grabbed a key from an elderly man, who was busy fixing an iron hammock stand. He granted us access to what's called the "Gate of Heaven," a rooftop overlooking the community of what some believe to be as many as 300,000 people, with a stunning 360-degree view coveted among tour groups. After paying the man a few Brazilian reais, Felix commented, "He really was one of the first people [in Rocinha] to realize what his roof was worth."
Residents, Felix added, are generally happy that tourists visit and spend money in Rocinha. But there are downsides to the added attention, too: It's made living here more costly, and the double-edged sword of gentrificação, or "gentrification," forced Felix and his family to relocate from Rocinha to a more affordable neighborhood nearby last year. This newfound reality—that properties in the area are now considered real estate "hot spots"—has led five of Felix's friends to rent out their homes for the Olympics.
Nearly every Brazilian we met either knew someone doing the same—or renting out their own living spaces. Adam Newman, the Colorado-born CEO of Favela Experience, is still trying to gauge the demand. "I've got 20 different people here asking me to rent out their houses," he told VICE. The "here" Newman mentioned is Vidigal, a favela that overlooks the wealthier beaches of Leblon. Launched just before the World Cup amid some criticism, Favela Experience began as a homestay network in Rocinha and has since expanded to include two hostels in Vidigal.
One of the services the company offers to favela residents renting out their homes is akin to customized consulting. "I'll come to their house and say, 'What do you think your house is worth? How much do you think you'll charge a night?'" Newman said. "'Why do you want to host people? What are you able to provide?'" (Favela Experience takes a cut of the resulting profits from the residents' rentals, too.)
Setting a realistic price is crucial, Newman explained, because of the real estate market that has developed in Rio over the past two years: "During the World Cup, I could ask for almost any price, and I'd fill it. That isn't the case during the Olympics. Between the World Cup and now, 15 more houses opened up on my street."
A scan for Airbnbs in the favelas clearly shows that Olympic-themed listings have flooded Rio, with prices wildly varying—even in neighborhoods more prone to crime, like Complexo do Alemão. So far, 55,000 visitors have signed up on the site for the games citywide, and Airbnb (an Olympic sponsor itself) provides flashy neighborhood guides for the favelas; the tagline for Rocinha reads, "An expansive favela where makeshift homes climb high into the hills."
To Newman, though, the future of favela tourism shouldn't be confined to a home-sharing platform. During the Olympics, his company will host tours with NGOs in ten different neighborhoods, selling immersive experiences like a walk through Vidigal led by five local actors roleplaying the history of Brazil and its favelas, capped off by a dinner at the hostel. "I think favela tourism is a process of increasingly larger integration," Newman added.
To understand how this process began, one must look at Santa Marta. The famous rainbow-striped community—the first to be "pacified" by police, in 2008—made favela-visiting a cottage industry. Following the death of Michael Jackson (who filmed his "They Don't Care About Us" music video here in the area in 1996), the "Espaço Michael Jackson" bronze statue and mural depicting the pop icon has become a popular tourist destination. There are two souvenir shops where you can buy the shirt MJ wore in the video—along with keychains, towels, and almost anything else related to Santa Marta. "During the Olympics," souvenir shop worker Maria Elena Barbara da Silva said, "I'm going to fill these walls."
At the Santa Marta tourist information desk that was recently built at the bottom of the hill for the Olympics, we met José Carlos, a tour guide and hostel operator who lives there. Carlos recently renovated the rooftop of his building to be more backpacker-friendly, offering a space with sofas, a hammock, and a coffee maker; while most of his beds are already booked for the Olympics, he's looking to rent out another space nearby and plans to charge visitors about $35 reais, or about $10 USD per night.
As other tour groups passed us on Santa Marta's steep steps, Carlos mentioned that more residents wanted to be guides during the Olympics, underlining what separates local-guided tours with tours guided by outsiders. "There are tours that go in search of misery," he explained. "These are jeep tours that don't step inside the community. They act like the favela is a safari in Africa."
With sunset quickly approaching, Carlos peered out onto the color wheel of homes and reflected that Santa Marta had come a long way from the days when it was run by the Comando Vermelho (or "Red Command") drug faction. "It wasn't thought to be very dangerous—it was," he said. "I always spoke to everyone, but you had to stay at a distance. If something happened, you could be caught in the crossfire."
"I never could've imagined Santa Marta like this," he added.
On our way out, we ran into his wife, another tour guide, leading a group of Americans who had come here from a hotel in Copacabana. Beer in hand, one of them expressed dismay that the favela's cable car to the top was broken. He would have to take the stairs.