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A flat roof packed full of tourists

How tourist tours around Rio's favelas work

John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty ImagesPrince CharlesJohn Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images

It was already difficult back in 1884 for the Oxford Dictionary to find a precise definition for the word “slumming”, which characterized the recent Victorian trend to visit poor areas in cities, which, as the locals stated, could be done out of philanthropy or curiosity to find out about other people’s wretchedness. Centuries later it still is strange to see foreigners in jeeps driving up the hill to take a look at Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest shantytown (favela) after watching the movie Cidade de Deus [City of God], or Brazilians getting excited about seeing at close quarters the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, as portrayed in the Brazilian TV soap, Caminho das Índias [India – A love story]. “If consumption and tourism are investigative themes that cause controversy, a source of moral accusation, what can we say about the consumption of a tourist favela?,” asks the sociologist from Cpdoc/FGV, Bianca Freire-Medeiros, author of the research Para ver os pobres: a construção da favela carioca como destino turístico [Looking at the poor: the construction of Rio de Janeiro shantytowns as a tourist destination], funded by the CNPq and that has recently been turned into a book, Gringo na laje [Gringos on the flat roof] (FGV Editora, 163 pages, R$ 17.00). “As the market is not naturally designed as a suitable place for expressing solidarity, turning poverty into merchandise, a tourist attraction that is charged for and paid for, can be seen as something abject,” she analyzes. “It’s no surprise that those who choose to consume the tourist favela make every effort to convince themselves and others that their visit is not an exercise in voyeurism, but an ethical action based on solidarity. Unfortunately, most are unaware that what they pay for the excursion is kept by the tourist agencies and does not get to the favela dwellers,” explains the researcher. What is amazing, however, is how favelas have positively won Brazil and the world over in such a short time.

One need only recall that when Michael Jackson came to Brazil to record a video clip in the Morro Dona Marta shantytown in the south of Rio in 1996, Brazilian politicians were angry at seeing the American pop star being received as the “king of the favela.” “Now he wants to become the king of misery and poverty,” accused Marcello Alencar, the Rio de Janeiro governor at the time. Just 10 years later, in 2006, another favela, Rocinha, saw itself transformed into one of the city’s official tourist spots. “The current international ‘chic favela’ wave has turned even that most humble of Brazilian merchandise, the rubber flip-flop, into an object of fetish,” notes Lorraine Leu, a scholar specializing in Brazil. In 2005, this led sociologist Bianca, who had just finished her PhD, to investigate the phenomenon of the unexpected conversion of the Rio favela into a tourist destination. This phenomenon is observed on four hills in Rio de Janeiro: Rocinha (the most symbolic case of all), Morro dos Prazeres, Morro da Babilônia and Morro da Providência. “Favelas, avoided by the local elite, have been transformed into attractions highly appreciated by foreign tourists. In keeping with the same rationale underlying ‘pro-poverty’ tourism elsewhere, favela tourism is sold to visitors from developed countries as something that enables them to take part in an altruistic activity, with an aura of good citizenship about it, without, at the same time, motivating adventure.” At present, there are seven agents that, together, handle an average of 3,500 tourists a month for Rocinha alone – the so-called “favela tours,” which charge as much as US$ 35 a head for a three to four hour outing. “Most of the residents interviewed, however, are unaware that the tourists pay this much for the excursion and some become indignant.” About 70% of those interviewed said that, in fact, they would not charge to act as a guide for people on the visits, a position illustrated by this statement: “It’s something you do for love and love is priceless; I could take them to see Rocinha and I’d be happy to do so.”

This cordiality has already been extended to countless visitors, from the futurist Marinetti, to Orson Welles and Le Corbusier, all happy and informal visitors to the favelas. “Our informants point to Eco-92 as the cornerstone for the favela as tourist destination, which is ironic if we recall that the government authorities put a lot of effort into isolating the favelas from foreign gaze, having even used the Army.” However, it was on a trip back from the Tijuca Forest, via the São Conrado district, that the interest of a group of foreigners was aroused to photograph the favela, then surrounded by the heavy guns of the military. The agencies saw the potential and bought into the idea. “It was then that the favela left the sidelines of tourist culture to become a highly profitable and sought-after attraction. On the other hand, all the tour agents that we spoke to point to the success of the movie City of God as being largely responsible for the growing interest in favelas as a tourist attractions. The movie was promoted worldwide as testimony about life in Rio’s ‘ghetto’,” observes the researcher who recalls, however, that tourists are not interested in seeing the real City of God site, because they prefer the spectacular views from Rocinha. The tourists “discovered” by Bianca are almost entirely foreign and mostly European – more than 60%. “It’s a heterogeneous group that wants to be different from others. They want to set themselves apart from conventional tourists, from the tourist-voyeurs and finally from the Rio elite,” states the researcher. According to Bianca, the “new bourgeoisie” constructs the kernel of their identity in opposition to the “bourgeoisie of tradition”: if the latter spends their vacations in spa towns, this new bourgeoisie demands pleasure, even if it comes from contemplating the wretchedness of others. “It’s common for tourists to justify their presence in the favela based on benefits for the site and on the positive effects of the experience upon their lives.” In the words of one American tourist in his blog, “Rocinha is a ‘must-do’ in Rio, because it will illuminate your life, by giving you a unique insight into a fascinating place.”

“Tourists say that they are transformed, becoming capable of ascribing value to what really matters. At the same time, the advantages, the comforts and benefits of home are reinforced by exposure to difference and to scarcity. In an interesting paradox, first-hand contact with those for whom various consumer goods are still inaccessible guarantees that the tourists become better consumers.” The vast majority, observes the author, believe that the tours provide essential money for the community. “At the same time, although the well-being of the favela is not their core motivation, all the tour agencies state that they are ethical. They believe that their business has an important ‘social dimension’ in that it increases the self-esteem of the slum-dwellers, who welcome people from all over the world who want to meet them.” According to the author, the favela often emerges as a self-sufficient territory with its own unique culture, where its dwellers remain united in opposition to the egoistical society that surrounds them; in short, a “community.” “What I saw there made me feel much safer inside the favela than outside on the beaches and in Copacabana. I walked around with a camera worth US$ 5,000 during the tour, something I’d never do outside the favela,” confessed one interviewee. However, this does not stand in the way of the tours’ terrible and invasive nature, given that some agencies, observes Bianca, do indeed encourage a “zoo-like” relationship with the shantytowns, by turning to the slum-dwellers with no type of focus whatsoever and even encouraging the tourists to photograph the inside of their houses rather than the social, cultural and political aspects of the favela.

A French family

After analyzing 710 photos posted on 50 photologs, researcher Palloma Menezes, from Bianca’s group and author of the study Gringos e cameras na favela da Rocinha [Foreigners and cameras in the Rocinha shantytown], discovered that houses and residents are by far the main subject of the photographs taken during the tours, even though, according to the agencies, the tourists are dissuaded from having them as the central elements of their photographic record. “Pictures of favelas have never been so heavily reproduced and disclosed as they are today,” says Palloma. This is a source of controversy in the community, because, as we will see later, while the community prefers that only the best aspects of the favela be shown, there are those who argue that what should be “photographed is the misery, the most shocking parts, the parts that hurt, a souvenir of Rocinha that hurts them when they get back to their own countries,” as a resident said in an interview. On the other hand, if the tourists do not spare the memory cards of their cameras, they save when it comes to spending in the community, in the belief that buying the tourist package is already contribution enough.

“The tourists spend very little during their visit (most of them just buy a bottle of water) and there are no tours with residents as agents. The result is that none of the money generated by tourism is appropriated by the sites and reinvested in the favela itself,” observes the researcher. According to Palloma, therefore, tourism in Rocinha is economically beneficial to a very specific and minority segment and does not lead to any effective distribution of profits; the tour agencies seldom establish a dialogue with institutions representative of the community. Occasional contributions are made in the form of tips, the money the tourist gives out of charity or kindness, which singles out the shantytown-dweller and distinguishes the tourist as someone generous and interested in improving the life of the community. In general, however, tourists are seen as rude, ill-mannered, invasive, little interested in the life of the community, someone who prefers to visit the place as if going to the zoo. Moreover, they seem determined to spend as little as possible and to take away as much as possible.

“Yes, favela tourism is a bit invasive, you know? Because you walk down those narrow streets and people leave their windows open. There are tourists who don’t have a ‘shame-meter’: they poke their noses into people’s homes! That’s really disagreeable. It’s already happened with one of the other guides. A local woman was cooking and her stove was beside the little window; the tourist walked by, put his hand through the window and took off the saucepan lid. She went wild. She hit his hand!” says a guide. “On our tours we never fail to witness some moment when the tables are turned and the tourists become the attraction for the local residents,” says Bianca. The researcher remembers how shantytown-dwellers ascribe childlike qualities to tourists: “They talk funny, it’s cute;” “I love to see them on days when it’s raining and they wear those little yellow macs, all looking like chicks.”

Perhaps because of this adaptability, despite everything, most of those interviewed (83%) look kindly on the presence of tourists in the favelas. “It’s all still clouded by a paradox: though understanding that the chief attractions of Rocinha as a tourist destination are precisely its poverty and violence and the huge contrast between its daily reality and that of the tourists, many don’t want the negative aspects (precariously-positioned shacks, garbage, the disorganization of the area, the violence) to be the attributes associated with the tourist destination Rocinha.” When foreigners climb onto the flat roofs, confusion sets in. “The tourist favela consists of a series of idealizations: tourists idealize the slum-dwellers, who are seen as the ‘guardians’ of authentic values and of what ‘truly matters’, but also as ‘pitiable’ and ‘wretched’; slum-dwellers idealize tourists, who are considered, at one and the same time, as ‘generous’ and ‘sympathetic’, but also ‘rude’ and ‘clueless’; agencies idealize both tourists and local residents and, based on these idealizations, mark out their tours, respond to demand and play the go-between in any conflicts.” Things that no Oxford Dictionary can properly address.