Slum tourism – there’s something about those two words put together that feels wrong. Tourism inevitably makes money, obviously, but is it wrong to make money out of areas that are themselves impoverished? Perhaps the most important question is where that money is going – does it benefit the slum, or does it simply put money back in to a system that helped to create the slums in the first place? I asked myself all of these questions last summer, when I was working in Rio de Janeiro as an English teacher. It was a completely different experience for me, and because I was living with two locals I was lucky enough to be able to gain a lot of insight from them. Rio is notorious for its hillside slums, that go by the name of favelas, but it never occurred to me that there was such a focus on making money out of favela tours until I arrived in Rio.

The city gained a lot of recognition during the last summer because of the World Cup. It was hard to digest the fact that a city with such high levels of poverty could host an event that would see such extortionate amounts of money being spent. I was aware of all this during my stay in Brazil, and spoke to many people who had completely varying viewpoints. Some thought it was great for the city, to get coverage on a sport that it is world famous for, and for the benefits of the tourism on the economy. Others were angry, and saw it as a completely uneven value of priorities for the city. How could the government even consider putting anything before helping to improve the slums themselves?

My hosts in Rio mentioned that some favelas were using tourism as a beneficial way of bringing money in to the favela. They took me with them to visit one of the famous samba schools of Rio called Manguiera, one that used all its funds to help build new homes and schools for the favela of the same name. All the workers in the samba school were from the surrounding favela, the tourism that the samba school had brought was beneficial because it gave them their jobs and provided them with money. It seemed of even greater worth that the samba school was drawing people’s attention to the favela, not because of the levels of poverty there, but for their talented samba band and dancers. It gave them a positive focus, one that did not focus on the negative sides of life in their neighbourhood.

While looking through tours on the Rio websites, almost every single website I found did not clarify where the money was going, who was giving the tour, or what the experience would entail. Eventually I found a favela tour that clarified its goal and purpose, which had it’s own blog written by the tour guides themselves. It was for the favela of Santa Marta, the first one to have been pacified and was proud to be used as a model for the other favelas. The pacification meant that the police force patrolled the neighbourhood to clear it of drug dealers and any other acts that could insight crime. The blog site featured a video where the tour guide mentioned his pride at being able to show tourists their homes, and the place where Michael Jackson filmed his music videos. The tours were given by inhabitants of the favela themselves, and artists from the favela were given an opportunity to sell their work to us. They describes their tours as ‘responsible tourism’ and it was clear to see the joy that the people in the favela had when they were inviting us in to their homes for caipirinha cocktails!

I think the most important thing to consider when contemplating taking a slum tour is whom you are benefitting with your money, and how. The tour guides of Santa Marta lived there, and used the money for projects that were clarified in the blog; many of the previous projects shown. It felt like an exchange, like we were being welcomed in to a big family experience, not as gawking tourists with lots of money to spend and no help to give. That made all the difference, to us and, most importantly, to them.