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A New Wave of Tourism-Border Crossings and Favela Tours

Written by 31 August 2010 One Comment

I was extremely surprised when I came across this article the other day, talking about tourists paying to go on a simulation of a Mexico-USA border crossing. The participants pay a relatively small fee (one is cited as 15 USD) to race after mock human traffickers without food or water. The slow ones are captured by “border patrol vans” and “deported”. For me this rang a similar note to Favela Tours in Brazil, which I have been hearing a lot about lately. A guide leads tourist groups through Brazilian slums, or favelas, which are normally considered fairly dangerous and inaccessible for nonlocals. The guide will often have deals with local drug lord or cartels to negotiate safe passage.

photo by kassá

photo by kassá

This sort of tourism is a double edged sword for me. It’s interesting to see travelers seeking to engage more with a location, instead of sitting at disconnected luxury resorts. The favela tour website above claims that its mission is to show people the real inhabitants and life of the favelas and disprove stereotypes of them as violent, drug ridden shanty towns. However, I think it’s impossible to avoid realizing this as a commodification and tourism of poverty. It is reasonable for people from more privileged nations who don’t regularly see poverty to want a better understanding, but there are many other ways to get involved. In order to have access to some of these lands and communities, tours must pay off cartels and gang leaders and so your money may inadvertantly go to support something you didn’t expect. A good alternative is to volunteer for an organization in another country. Often you pay little or nothing and may be provided some room and board, while getting a chance to live in a place and make real connections to people and organizations focused on really helping the community. For some resources check out Katja’s post about volunteering abroad.

What do you think about these “poverty tours”? Are they more positive or negative?

post by Jackie Clark

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One Comment »

  • Rose said:

    Dear Jackie, this is happening for quiet long time and not only in Brazilian favelas but also in other poor countries. People pay to see the poverty, to feel the risks of such trip. It is all about the feel of an authentic experience. This type of tourism however, is sometimes commoditised. In Bali for example, the locals have been forbidden electricity and any type of refurbishment of their houses in some parts of the island, because of authentic image of the Balinese villages, which the government wanted to preserve for the sake of tourism.

    I heard a colleague telling a story of her being a tourist on a trip to a shanty town in South Africa. The travellers were brought to a poverty stricken street where poor families were seating outside with their children and telling the stories of living with fear and hunger every day. At some point a phone started to ring and the family father took his new mobile phone out of the pocket with a sign of embarrassment on his face..I remember my colleague saying that she was disappointed because it appeared that they are not as poor as she thought they are. So do we “westerners” feel satisfaction by seeing “others” living in such conditions? Can this sight satisfy our curiosity and the need to tell friends our exciting stories when we get back home? And I sometimes ask myself if we really can blame them for the commodification of their life, tradition or culture?

    I think that in some cases tourism can help the locals to earn their living and make their life better but as you say only if there is a direct connection between the poor communities and the tourists. Unfortunately it looks like most benefits from tourism are getting into hands of local gangsters or all- inclusive chains of hotels owned by the foreigners where the tourists are treated in assembly -line manners.

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