It’s a sunny day and Paulo is holed up indoors, playing a computer game. It’s an escapist scenario that plays out daily in suburban homes around the world, except eight-year-old Paulo isn’t pretending to be a drug dealer digitally blowing up police cars in Grand Theft Auto, or a soldier storming the virtual favelas of Rio in Call of Duty. That would be uncomfortably close to reality.
Paulo, who lives in a shack in Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha favela — a labyrinthine slum beset by drugs and violence — is using a public computer in a tiny community centre to build his virtual dream home on screen; his biggest thrill the idea of having his own bedroom.
You can see the contrast, but perhaps the biggest difference between these tableaux is, in Paulo’s case, I’m there watching him. I don’t spend my days hanging around in youth clubs back in the UK, so why am I here now?
Because, of course, I’m on a favela tour, an activity that around 50,000 tourists engage in annually while in Brazil. Born in Victorian London — when the aristocracy would descend on the capital’s poorest areas for either voyeuristic or philanthropic reasons — ‘slum tourism’ (also known as ‘poverty tourism’ or ‘reality tourism’) is growing in popularity around the globe, as increasingly curious travellers look for ever more ‘exotic’ experiences.
South Africa’s township tours sprang up at the end of apartheid, and now around 1,000 tourists visit Soweto, the country’s most famous township, every day. Since 2009’s Slumdog Millionaire was released, tours to the Dharavi slum in Mumbai have doubled. Similarly, 2002’s Oscar-nominated City of God saw a spike in visits to Rio’s shanty towns, and around 3,500 people now visit Rocinha each month.
Unsurprisingly, much controversy surrounds these ‘slum tours’. Many people argue that most visitors come for the sake of voyeurism, turning poor neighbourhoods into little more than human zoos, in which the privacy and dignity of those living in poverty is violated by exploitative tour companies looking to make a fast buck selling ‘poverty porn’. Hostels opening up in these areas, which often occupy the picturesque hills around the city, are driving up property and grocery prices in the neighbourhoods.
In contrast, proponents insist that favela tours give a voice to sidelined communities and help tourists better understand the challenges faced by those living in shanty towns.
“Slum tourism generally doesn’t provide much-needed stable incomes,” says Vicki Brown from Responsible Travel. “If you do choose to go on a favela tour, ensure your guide will be local, and that you will be doing more than just gawping at poverty.”
Comuna 13, a district of Colombia’s Medellín neighbourhood, was once a slum controlled by drug cartels and one of the country’s most dangerous areas. In its tiny, twisting lanes, inaccessible to police vehicles, teenage assassins have been known to use motorcycles to carry out drive-by shootings for pocket money.
Today, Casa Kolacho — a group of local rap and graffiti artists from Comuna 13 — take tourists on a tour of the outdoor escalators that have helped to make this hillside community safer by connecting residents to the city’s infrastructure. The tour also takes in their music and murals — many of which are spray-painted tributes to their fallen comrades. The group has helped kids come off the streets by teaching them DJ skills, music production and street art. Homegrown projects like these reinvest in the local area, offer favela dwellers a stake in their own destinies, and promote pride in their communities.
Ultimately, slum tourism can be ethical as long as it directly involves and improves the lives of the people living in these improvised neighbourhoods.
What is the safest way to visit a favela?
The best approach would be to do so in as controlled an environment as possible, with experienced guides. Check the FCO for more information, and keep a eye on the news and political situation before going on a favela tour in any South American country.
How big are these slums?
Rocinha is the largest favela in Latin America and home to around 150,000 people, but it’s just one of more than 100 slums in Rio. About 1.4 million of Rio’s seven million residents live in its favelas. Worldwide, nearly one billion people — around a sixth of the global population — live in slums.
What can I do to make sure my tour is ethical?
Join small walking tour groups, preferably with a guide, rather than driving through neighbourhoods — you’re not on safari. Find out how your tour fee will be distributed within the community. Try to visit and spend time in local stores and restaurants. Make sure your guide is from the community you’re visiting. You should consider donating clothes, footballs and school books, too.
For further information, visit tourismconcern.org.uk
Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)