By Andrew Willis, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – 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.
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 controversial 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.
There are now over thirty Police Pacifying Units (UPPs) set up inside Rio favelas, with two gondola networks also helping to improve access and draw tourist to Complexo do Alemão and soon Morro do Providência in Zona Norte (North Zone).
Partially as a result, 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 (South Zone) beaches.
According to the FGV study, conducted in 2011 and published last week, 58.2 percent of the Brazilian tourists questioned in Rio’s Tom Jobim airport said they planned on visiting one of city’s many informal housing communities (favelas). The figure was 51.3 percent for overseas tourists.
The higher percentage of Brazilian tourists expressing an interest was a surprise to the study’s authors, and also to several tour guides that operate in the city. “I have a lot more foreigners, and really very few Brazilians,” says Favela Adventure operator, Zezinho Da Rocinha who takes groups around Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela.
Not all foreign tourists are interested in visiting a favela, however. “For many Latin Americans, favela visits are less interesting,” says Juleymar Jaimes from Venezuela. “There are numerous favelas in my country, so I don’t feel so motivated to visit them here.”
Another issue revealed by the study is the relatively small amounts of money that tourists spend inside the favelas. During a survey of visitors to the Santa Marta favela, roughly sixty percent of respondents said they had spent no more than R$5, mainly on water and other refreshments. Just 9.5 percent said they bought souvenirs or craftwork of some kind.
For the study’s authors, many companies inside Rio’s favelas are not equipped to cater to tourists, creating a scenario where visitors simply come and take photos. Critics of so-called ‘poverty tourism’ say it is this lack of tangible benefits for favela residents that is deeply worrying.
Despite the polemical nature of this debate, demand for favela community visits is set to rise. “There is an international demand for this type of attraction,” sociologist Bianca Freire Medeiros, one of the author’s of the FGV report, told local media.
“It is a global phenomenon that occurs in South Africa, India and Mexico. Foreign tourists that come to Rio will keep looking for it. And someone is going to profit from this. It would be interesting if the local residents could receive some benefit.”