By Andrew Willis, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – A number of celebrities visiting Brazil for the country’s famous Carnival celebrations have taken time out from the festivities to visit a favela, one of the informal housing developments that are common in cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Actor Will Smith visited Rio’s Vidigal favela community, accompanied by actress and model Kim Kardashian and singer Kanye West.
The trio visited the Zona Sul (South Zone) favela, located near the wealthy district of Leblon, on Sunday (February 10th), posing for photographs with locals and amongst themselves.
Vidigal enjoys stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean, with increased security in recent years following the pacification and UPP (Police Pacification Unit) in January 2012. Since then Vidigal has also received United States House of Representatives John Boehner.
Andreas Wielend, owner of the popular Casa Alto Vidigal guesthouse was one of the favela residents to see Smith. “He had lots of security but stopped for a few photos with locals. It was a fairly quick visit I think,” said Wielend.
Smith, famous for films such as “I Am Legend” and the “Men in Black” trilogy, arrived in Rio on Saturday and booked into on of Rio’s luxury hotels, located on the beachfront in the district of Ipanema.
U.S. actors Megan Fox and Brian Austin Green also used Brazil’s Carnival as an opportunity to visit the Heliópolis favela in São Paulo. Hundreds of other tourists did likewise, with Carnival blocos playing in ‘pacified’ favelas in Rio de Janeiro listed on the UPP Social website.
The success of films like Cidade de Deus (City of God) and Tropa de Elite (Elite Squade) has drawn increased attention to Rio’s favelas over the past decade. Since then, the government’s pacification program – the removal of drug dealers by overwhelming force, plus follow-up social measures – has contributed to an improved image of a number of favela communities.
Now a visit to the former trouble spots, where outbreaks of violence still occur and living conditions remain poor, is a key feature on the agenda of many tourists wishing to break away from the Zona Sul’s beaches.
Roughly half the tourists that travel to Rio de Janeiro plan on visiting one of the city’s favelas, according to a new study by researchers at the Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) institution. Also, perhaps surprisingly, the study suggests that Brazilian tourists are more inclined to visit the favelas than foreign tourists are.
Yet the growing number of visits has also led to criticism of ‘poverty tourism’, with tourists surveyed in the same recent study, saying they spent relatively small amounts of money inside the favela communities.
The study’s authors said part of the problem was that favela infrastructure was frequently unsuitable for receiving growing numbers of tourists. However there is also indication that a growing number of favela residents are discovering tourism as a new business opportunity, with hostels, tours and even party venues becoming more widely available.
The visit by Smith, Kardashian and West follows a line of other celebrities that have visited one of Rio’s favelas. In December last year, Madonna visited the Santa Marta favela where year’s earlier Michael Jackson filmed a clip for his for his hit single “They Don’t Care About Us”. Other celebrities to visit favelas recently include Britain’s Prince Harry and U.S. singer Lady Gaga.