Rio de Janeiro—Young men standing watch on street corners with walls riddled by bullets and covered with gang graffiti. These images are what a tour guide points out in one of Rio de Janeiro`s largest and most dense favelas, Rocinha.
"No pictures here," the guide reminds a small group of mostly [North] Americans as they pass by local men on one of the main thoroughfares.
"Did you see the gun on his back?" the guide whispered.
Descending a hill on foot, the tour passed by a group of children playing samba beats on buckets, local artisans, and a children`s nursery. But most of the tour revolved around Rocinha`s storied violence, including one reference to the 1987 gangster movie The Untouchables, to describe the heavy weaponry openly brandished on the streets before the military took over the area in 2011.
Since the “pacification” process of Rio`s favelas began across the city in 2008, successfully driving down soaring homicide rates, commercial tourism in favelas has exploded.
Today our tours through favelas are a part of the local communities who totally recognise and approve what we do.
But despite occasional flare-ups of violence and turf wars among police and drug traffickers, most tourists reported feeling safe. More than 50 percent of visitors to Brazil recommended the so-called favela experience to friends and family, according to a survey commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism.
"Tourism in underserved areas is a global reality," read the report, citing places such as South Africa where, “’The Township Tours,’ as they are known, visit poor communities and are the third-most popular attraction in the country."
Taking the Tour
The new market hasn`t been lost on the federal and state governments, or tour operators that have geared up for the World Cup and Rio`s Olympic Games.
In 2013, then tourism minister Gastão Vieira announced plans to promote visits to favelas and pledged resources to help residents develop new skills to take advantage of the tours. The ministry started a programme in Santa Marta to train local tour guides.
"The pacified communities are already inserted in the tourism context and now depend on government help with infrastructure and resources needed for this work to be developed," Vieira was quoted as saying.
In Rio, most commercial tours are still arranged through hotels and last about three hours, costing between $45 and $80 per person. “Jeep Tours,” an ecological tour company offering rides through parks and forests, started meeting new "tourist demands" by introducing open-jeep treks through favelas.
In the beginning, the company was concerned about how the tours would be received by favela residents, but that hasn’t been a problem, Raffael Ricci of “Jeep Tours” told Al Jazeera.
"Today our tours through favelas are a part of the local communities who totally recognise and approve of what we do," Ricci said. "Anyone gets amazed by the view a favela has to offer, and showing people how these communities are part of Rio de Janeiro."
On the government tourism website, the area of Vidigal, a favela not far from Ipanema`s beaches with stunning views of the city, is promoted as a new way to experience Rio with guesthouses, DJ-led parties and restaurants.
But a number of favela tourists and residents surveyed noted a lack of local historical context built into the tours. It doesn`t help that many guides don’t come from the areas they show to foreign visitors. That`s a huge problem for those adamant that favela tourism must be driven by residents, rather than outsiders, in order to prevent gentrification, land speculation and irreversible damage to the community.
"Tourism in favelas has incredible stigmas associated with them," the director of the NGO Catalytic Communities, Theresa Williamson, told Al Jazeera at a debate about the effects of gentrification in favelas.
"You go on some and you hear all these stories of violence, gory details—made up or sometimes not made up—to emphasise that during the tour they`re taking advantage of the stigma to boost their business."
For Williamson`s group, favelas are the "most stigmatised urban communities in the world," but responsible favela tourism—not so-called poverty tourism or exotic tourism—could have an overwhelmingly positive effect on changing people`s attitudes about favelas, wrongly portrayed by most media as violent slums to outsiders.
Al Jazeera visited the rights group Rocinha without Borders to talk about what didn`t get covered in the tour of Rocinha. Coordinating member José Martins de Oliveira has been working on getting proper sanitation to replace an open sewage system that he said has caused high rates of disease such as tuberculosis in some areas.
Asked about the Rocinha guide`s description of the favela’s functioning water system and electricity, de Oliveira said the tour failed to accurately portray the situation.
"Ten to 15 percent still don`t have electricity. And here, because of the work we did in buying all the material, we now have running water. But there are parts where there is still not a water system," said de Oliveira, who accused the state of being absent until tourism and real estate spiked.
He said he’s most angry that the government has so far delayed promises to improve dangerous sanitation conditions, and that it has allocated funds for more showy projects following the area`s militarisation.
He`s in a legal fight against government plans for a cable car, like in the pacified area of Complexo do Alemão, another one of Rio`s main tourist attractions.
"Tourists bring little to the community when they`re on the ground and they`ll bring even less if they`re in the air," he said.
A Model Favela for what?
The seemingly safest and most popular favela tour is Santa Marta, the first to be pacified and held up as the "model" for the pacification process. Michael Jackson filmed the 1996 video “They don`t care about us” here, and a monument of the pop singer is its principal attraction for commercial tours.
"You feel like you`re in a zoo," said Vitor Lira, a locally trained guide for Santa Marta, who is against all commercial tourism in his community. He also said taking pictures of residents is a violation of privacy.
On the way up the hill, visitors will pass by 150 homes that have been marked for removal by the government, citing geographical risks. Lira`s own family house sits atop the hill and is on the list for demolition.
But he said he suspects other motivations by the government, "primarily to serve tourists for the best views." Banners that read "Model favela for what?" at the top of the hill send a clear message to visitors.
"It`s a very welcoming and accepting community, just not in this form," said Lira.
He`s trying to wrestle the tourism trade out of the hands of outsiders and commercial interests and into those of Santa Marta residents.
There are signs in Santa Marta that the strategy is working. One group of locals has organised an "authentic" favela tour, "showing that the major motivation for favela tourism is the opportunity to share ways of life, life experiences and no one can provide a more real experience than someone who lives in the favela itself."
It`s rated high on Tripadvisor.com, with comments referring to the fight against evictions and improving lives within favelas.
"It`s one thing to go gawk at poverty, another thing is to go see a fascinating vibrant community where people are battling it out to better their lives," said Williamson of “Catalytic Communities.” "Residents feel the difference."
Photos: (1) Graffiti protest the government’s slated demolition of 150 homes In the Santa Marta favela, Rio de Janeiro. (2) Santa Marta residents express their anger and have hung signs such as “Apartheid” for tourists to see. Source: Elizabeth Gorman/Al Jazeera.
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