Intrusive Tourism?

In South Africa they’re called townships. In Brazil they’re called favelas. As a visitor to these two countries, you can actually tour some of the slums there. In Spanish there are a slew of words that can be used to describe a slum. The one I learned is barrio bajo, which when translated literally means below neighborhood. Although literal translations of a word are in my opinion sometimes far-off, this one is perfect, no? A slum is a neighborhood below the poverty line, below the attention and even caring of most residents, below sadly anything that can truly be done to remedy it.

Brazil has one of the highest economic disparities between its classes. So while thousands of tourists are tanning themselves on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janiero, larger numbers of its local residents are living below the poverty line in its favelas. Rio’s slums are dangerous, as they are often the site of gang wars and drug activity. Its residents are looked down upon by the rest of the city and the government. However, in recent years efforts have been made to bring Rio’s tourists to witness and experience life inside a favela. Although many outfitters exist that guide tourists through what are considered the city’s most dangerous areas, I thought I would highlight one that I found when reading up on them.

On its website, Favela Adventures describes itself as being “a small company that is operated 100% by residents in the favela of Rochinha. Our main purpose is to educate people about our community and the great things that exist here.” The company offers a variety of tours and other activities within the favela, but a three hour visit will cost you 65 Brazilian reales (or about $42 United States dollars). It says it does not accept monetary donations, but it does take arts and other craft supply donations.

I’ve never been to Brazil but I did visit two slums in Costa Rica when I was studying there, one that was a settlement of illegal Nicaraguan immigrant squatters. These were not touristic visits. I was able to visit them (without any harm coming to me) because my study abroad program’s core focus was sustainable development. Having been around since the 1980s, maintaining a reputable and established name, it had many connections throughout the city with various groups and communities. On our visit to the Nicaraguan squatter community, we were told not to wear any flashy clothing or jewlery. Apparently even in broad daylight with our visit being well known, robberies could still happen (and had). I can’t begin to describe the depths of poverty that existed there. Homes were constructed out of random materials and many of the floors were dirt, only covered by cheap plastic coverings. A stream ran through the community, but was polluted due to its being used as a garbage disposal and who knows what else. Sadly it was also where the residents got their water from. Just as the Brazilian government has attempted to raze some of the most infamous favelas, the Costa Rican government has tried to do the same on different occasions. But the people rebuild and rebuild, for what other options do they have?

Although the people I met and spoke with were very nice and welcoming, anxious to share with visitors many of the hardships they faced on a daily basis, I couldn’t help feel like an intruder. I didn’t belong there in any way, shape, or form. I felt as if I experienced poverty for a mere hour, and then when the hour was up, back I went to my upper middle-class existence, the dirt floors and polluted stream nothing but memories in my mind. Educating people, helping them to become informed, are fundamental values necessary to doing away with ignorance and negative stereotypes, but as a tourist, I find favela and township visits somewhat of a farce. I’m not saying I want to be blissfully ignorant of how many of the residents live in a country I am visiting. I know more than most people how even amongst the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton hotels, workers there make a pittance compared to the price of a hotel room. I simply feel that these kinds of visits are intrusive to the residents and do nothing more than put them on display in a negative and circus-like manner.

Have any of you ever been on this type of tour? If not, would you go on one?

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