||TAMARA DINELLE, Contributor
Over the past 20 years, the combination of affordable air travel, the Internet and globalization have provided the travel industry with access to many previously uncharted destinations. With almost every corner of the globe literally open for business on some level, the travel industry is continuously seeking off-the-beaten-track tours for their more seasoned, adventurous clientele.
A view of Rio de Janeiro with Rocinha in the foreground. Photo Credit: iStock
An increasing number of travelers visiting “developing” nations, along with new market opportunities and increased competition, has resulted in the creation of ”slum” tours.
These tours provide a glimpse into some of the world’s most infamous slums, allowing travelers to see the reality of a destination outside of the “pretty” (and more secure) tourist sites.
Understandably, there is a considerable amount of controversy about whether these tours are actually of benefit to either the traveler or the slum residents. Many popular travel guides have coined them “poorism” and “slumdog safaris,” and request that travelers critically investigate whether the tour company is paying anything back into these communities.
Critics argue that the tour companies are exploiting people who live in arguably the worst conditions in the urban world by putting them on display, while tourists go back to their more prosperous existence at the end of the day. Tour proponents, on the other hand, feel that these sites are as important to experience as a cathedral or museum because they are very much a part of a city’s cultural make-up, and ignoring them — and the plight of the residents — doesn’t provide a complete view of the city or country.
Rocinha, Rio's infamous favela. Photo by Tamara Dinelle
My first-hand experience with these tours and the decision to sign up for one came on a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when my travel buddy Sarah decided she wanted to take a tour of Rocinha, the city’s largest slum or favela.
Weeks prior to our departure, Rocinha had been raided by the Brazilian military police (the UPP) as part of the government’s favela “pacification plan” — a sweep of drug-related criminals in the favelas prior to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games (a campaign that is being overtly publicized by the Brazilian government and media).
Sarah argued that despite the recent raids, the favelas are a major part of Rio’s history and culture, and worth exploring. If I had been traveling alone, I would’ve automatically dismissed the idea.
Years ago, when I used to travel on business to cities such as Detroit and St. Louis, I never would have considered going into any of the housing projects I drove past in the name of tourism. Why should my trip to Rio be any different? But I was traveling with someone this time and needed to practice the art of compromise.
So began the internal and external deliberations about whether this was something I felt comfortable with. I argued with Sarah: “Do I actually need to go in there to comprehend and appreciate the vast socio-economic differences that exist in Brazil? Why can’t we just see it by driving around the city, like every other tourist?”
Rochina. Photo by Tamara Dinelle
While Rocinha now has a police presence, given its history the tour company couldn’t realistically provide us with any guarantees of our safety. And with our Irish and English backgrounds, both Sarah and I were visible minorities in these parts — fair-haired and whiter than alabaster, we would definitely not be inconspicuous.
However, the fact that the tour operators have been running tours in the favelas on a regular basis with tourists as pale as us — without incident — voided those arguments.
In the end, my decision was based on two factors. The first was that I had always considered myself to be open-minded about traveling, rarely turning away an experience based on media stereotypes — especially if there were other perspectives being reported on. The second was that I wasn’t going to let my friend go in there alone.
I was still apprehensive about how ethical it was to be visiting a place that reportedly is the cause of so much suffering. But until I had any first-hand experience, I couldn’t make a solid determination.
Click here to read: Slumming it in Rio: How ethical are ‘slum’ tours? (Part 2)
Would you go on a slum tour? Take our poll (located on the right-hand side of our homepage).
Tamara Dinelle is a marketing communications professional based in Toronto. When she can find the time and the means, she is a passionate adventurer and explorer. Her favourite destinations to date include Saigon, Barcelona, Melbourne, Kyoto and New York City.
Date Added: January 25, 2012 | Comments (1)
Well written, waiting for part two. This is my last bucket list destination to accomplish.
Comment by miqui — January 26, 2012 @ 10:32 pm