25 Years of Favela Tourism: continuities, changes and challenges

Bianca Freire-Medeiros, professor of the department of sociology of the University of São Paulo and author of Touring Poverty (Routledge Advances in Sociology), specializes in the detrimental effects of commercialized poverty in regard to favela tourism. Favela tourism encompasses a fairly recent industry that highlights and normalizes a day in the life of extreme poverty. The tourist market, built on entertainment and pity, guides visitors through despondent and deteriorating slums so that they may witness firsthand the ‘poor experience.’ Favela tourism expands past actual favelas (an agglomeration of substandard urban housing), in what Bianca labels as the ‘traveling favela,’ the brand that increases market value to any restaurant or club that embraces the favela theme, such Favela Chic, a club bar restaurant in Paris. None of these funds are allocated, however, to the individuals whose privacy is violated by voyeuristic commerce. Thus, a system of structural violence is established wherein those in power are further amplified by the exploitation of the victimized and vulnerable who, in turn, reap little to no benefits.

This inequality is best highlighted by the recent sale of a ‘favela arm chair’ composed entirely of wooden planks resembling the shacks and shanty towns of which favelas are constructed. The ‘favela arm chair’ sold for the equivalent of $7,900, more money than what a typical Brazilian home would cost located within a favela. Big media exposure has only vivified the problem, with movies like City of God, that romanticize and naturalize poverty as part of the landscape stir a desire in onlookers to take a peek themselves and marvel at the horrors. Governments are then less inclined to address the issue of poor living standards and declining heath in these areas because wealth is being accumulated. From 2009-2015, 70,000 people were displaced from their homes in the favelas of Brazil due to failed reconstruction projects that merely demolished and abandoned buildings. The police that regulate these areas are delegated to where tourism occurs most frequently, in order to better protect those visiting instead of those indigenous to the land. Costly decorations are erected to attract tourists instead of distributing funds toward more dire needs because appearance has more profit than people. The odds are increasingly stacked against favela residents, who live their lives in a glass cage bound by poverty and are further humiliated by the morbid fascination of the global community.

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