Globalization or Zoo-Like Exploitation? Slum Tours on the Rise

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse, originally published at The Coup Magazine

Update: Looks like folks in Chicago can take a “Ghetto Bus Tour”

Tourism provides a way for people to escape, to shed their suits for bikinis and shorts, their dress shoes for flip flops, and to replace stress with fun. What’s often left out of this story, however, is how hosting tourists involves the population of the vacation spot to “suit up” and serve their foreign patrons. The escapism in this case is a luxury, something that costs money and takes time, but an act in which many people, in particular the poor, are unable to engage. There is no vacation from the daily realities they face, even if reality happens to be in a beautiful city like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

For years, tourists from around the world have been flocking to this city for Carnaval, the ultimate hedonistic display and one of the first cultural traditions that comes to mind when people think of Brazil. Others come for the beaches, or to see the gigantic Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Hill, or to do. . . other things. . . with local women and girls who are known to be beautiful and highly sexual—quite the standard to live up to. Sounds utopian doesn’t it?

But there are other tourists, still, who come for a Brazilian feature of a different sort: poverty. Apparently, guided Jeep tours through Rio’s hillside slums (favelas) are quite popular. Tourists can even stay in the favelas in small hotels or home rentals that come stocked with linens, toiletries, food, and provide transportation. These tours and bed & breakfast inns cater to tourists who want to see the “Real Brazil,” but I question how “real” one’s experience in the slums can be when the tourist requires a translator, a tour guide, and a temporary home where his/her needs are easily met. The tours are apparently so influential, that some tourists have made the favela their permanent home.

The favelas themselves have been a symbol for Brazil since the1980s, when drug wars and gang activity increased as the government shifted from dictatorship to democracy. Tourism to Brazil by U.S. citizens is still fairly low in comparison to other vacation spots for various reasons, including the language barrier (Brazilians speak Portuguese, a language not commonly taught or learned in the United States), travel costs (a plane ticket to Brazil can range from $600 to $1000, and is even more expensive during Carnaval season), and limited familiarity with/exposure to Brazilian culture. But the stories of violence in Brazil’s major cities are seen as what created a major dent in Brazil’s tourism industry during the 1990s. Brazil was marked as a pariah by American tourist agencies, and was considered one of the most dangerous places for vacation by the U.S. Department of State. The rapid increase of HIV/AIDS contraction certainly didn’t make Brazil’s image any better. Brazil, despite the diversity among its states, was spoken of in highly general terms, as if one bad story from one city was rampant throughout the entire country.

The aftermath of this stereotype, though temporarily detrimental for its tourism-based revenue, was an ironic glorification and romanticization of slum life. The image people had of Brazil still included beaches and beauties, but the favela stood out as a major landmark in tourists’ mental maps. Once a neighborhood avoided at all costs, and still very much stigmatized by middle to upper class Brazilians in the present, the favela became a symbol of Brazilian daily life. The poverty within was acknowledged, but largely overlooked as tourists tend to exist in a sheltered bubble where struggle is a non-issue. The fact that tours and accommodations for tourists within favelas are popular is, in my opinion, disturbing at best.

Of course, I am thrilled that non-Brazilians are becoming more aware of the socio-economic divisions within Brazil’s major cities like Rio and São Paulo, and many of those who allow tourists to stay in their homes note how their visits may improve both the image and economy of Brazilian favelas (and their inhabitants):

‘Favelas have a negative image of drugs and violence, but visitors find out it can be different,’ said Marcelo Mendonca, who rents out a room in his house in the Vila Canoas favela. ‘People love to go to the bakery and the corner bar. They help the local economy.’

I am not sure, however, if all will take away this educational message. After all, their experiences in the favelas are an adventure, a realistic video game where gunshots are heard, but the blood and dead bodies are absent. An Associated Press article about the subject entitled “Rio Shantytowns Drawing Adventurous Tourists” goes on to note:

So far, Mendonca [quoted above] has hosted guests from England, Australia, Hong Kong and Spain. Some complained that his favela, one of the city’s safest, seemed too nice.

This is what worries me. When the image on the outside doesn’t match the reality on the inside, it means that something about the external portrayal relies on stereotypes, generalizations, and neo-colonial judgment of the “poor natives.” I suppose without these images, the tours would make no money. Tourism, as a business, relies heavily on stereotypes in order to function, at least when the host population is concerned. The stereotypes in the case of Brazil highlight an interesting aspect of stereotyping that troubles many people of color: bi-polarity. Brazilians are seen as friendly, beautiful, vivacious, party-goers. They are also seen as violent, poor, criminals out to harm every tourist in sight. In the public eye, there is rarely a presentation of a happy medium, a real person, not just some caricature that the media has helped us form.

Another aspect of the favela tours that I can’t shake is how similar they are to World’s Fair displays. Filipino historian Renato Constantino makes note of the “othering” process that took place during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis by way of human zoos:

On display were exhibits showing America’s Negro slaves and bucolic plantation life, exhibits of American Indians, and the Philippine Exposition – one of the largest and most popular exhibits showing abducted Filipino ‘savages’ – which ‘gave Americans a chance to see the people they had recently conquered.’

A sampling of ‘Your new-caught sullen peoples, / Half devil and half child,’ as Kipling described the natives of the Philippines – before they were moved up the evolutionary tree thanks to America’s civilizing presence. That’ll be the day.

While the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was a story of racial supremacy intended ‘to rationalize deep social divisions in a society that proclaimed its belief in equality,’ it was also an imperial narrative that sought to make the link ‘between Manifest Destiny on the home front, and America’s burgeoning drive to expand overseas.’

People are not animals. Their lives should not be on display for the sensory gluttony of privileged Western tourists who can take home an image of the poor to feel better about their own lives. Maybe I am being too judgmental here. Not all of the tourists have a superiority complex. Shouldn’t I be equally as judgmental of the people who never want to enter a favela? I also have to question supply and demand. Do the tours exist because the tourists want to see the favelas or do the tourists want to see the favelas because now they know they can in a safe and sheltered way? I, sadly, don’t have any answers.

I wonder how these tours would play out in the United States. Of course, one could argue that the appropriation of “ghetto culture” or even gentrification are mild forms of the aforementioned, but I wonder how Americans would feel if people took tours through impoverished, gang-infested, crime-riddled communities here? How would it affect our national image? On a micro-level, how would the people who live there feel and ultimately react? Would they start up hotels and guided tours to accommodate their wealthier guests? Considering the racial implications of such tours as well, I wonder how they would shape race relations in this country and what they are doing for perceptions of the poor people of color in Brazil and even South Africa, where shantytown tours are also quite popular, and where racial tension runs high.

I suppose that the experiences of the racially and economically marginalized are exciting and entertaining, but in the long run, it’s just that for the people on the outside. It’s never “real” for those who don’t actually live it. If you’re born into it and have trouble escaping, it’s another story. If adversity continues to be a method of escape, a cheap thrill for tourists who want a break from their privileged lives, can real problems ever be addressed outside of song themes, t-shirt graphics, or movie topics and for what they really are?

*Hat tip to Jonathan for sending me the CNN article!

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

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  • Noel

    I really enjoyed this article. Last summer, I visited Rio de Janeiro for a study abroad experience through my university. I’m earning a minor in Portuguese and my studies have been very focused on Brazil. What worries me is how these favelas are being provided for in preparation of the World Cup and Olympics. Upon arrival, the highway was surrounded by favelas which, within meters, were walled off from entering visitors’ views… literally. There is a wall that goes up and down the highway so that you can’t see the city’s poverty. After learning about the tours while I was down there, I learned about how some of the money actually gets donated to social programs within the favelas. However, it still doesn’t settle with me. What is to be the plan of action after the World Cup and Olympics, when the government no longer has to sweep their poverty under the rug? Rocinha, from what I remember, was very catered to as it is Rio’s largest favela. I’m glad the people of these favelas are benefitting in some ways, however, I still can’t help but be uneasy when I see how they’ve painted the outside houses of Rocinha bright and rich colors and yet not the inside. Like the article said, the government is trying to give tourists what they want without giving a bad impression.