Is slum tourism really that bad?

According to the University of Potsdam’s Dr. Fabian Frenzel, who has researched favela tourism, the answer is, “No”. Frenzel says that initially, most favela tour operators initially came “from outside the favela”—and kept profits outside too. But that has changed. Many companies now employ residents and encourage tourists to buy stuff from local shops. Criticism of the favela tour concept has also pushed companies to give more to the communities (some have set up sister charities)—and to be more financially transparent. Today, cagey tourists who aren’t quite sure whether slum tours are kosher are reassured by self-aware tour operators who promise to portray slums in their uncomfortable entirety—and to work collaboratively with locals. Appeals to responsible and sustainable slumming themselves become part of the marketing pitch.

Frenzel says that many Brazilians are “surprised by the attention—which has to do, historically, with a lot of disregard” for favelas. Some are grateful for a steady flow of tourists, which makes it harder for the government to cover-up areas of impoverishment and for police to hide the effects of their aggressive pacification campaigns.

Of course, these same benefits can be double-edged, or just plain bullshit. Tourism Concern’s Mark Watson says that companies often exaggerate the amount that they donate to communities. In other situations, tour companies fund their own schools or orphanages—but then treat them as open-door pit stops for slum tourists. School classes are disrupted so that kids can sing for visitors. Orphans are doled out to whoever wants to pay to cuddle impoverished babies.