Rio re­thinks favela tourism as wave of vi­o­lence shakes city

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FEATURES & ANALYSIS - By Re­nata Brito

RIO DE JANEIRO: As au­thor­i­ties in Brazil tack­led crime ear­lier this decade, open­ing Rio de Janeiro’s hill­side fave­las to tourists seemed like a win­ning idea. The views are breath­tak­ing, the slum res­i­dents could cash in, and for­eign vis­i­tors would see an­other part of the city – not just Copaca­bana beach.

Now soar­ing vi­o­lence in the hill­side com­mu­ni­ties is rekin­dling a con­cern: Are fave­las safe to visit?

Most fa­mously de­picted in the Os­car-nom­i­nated movie “City of God,” Rio’s fave­las have long been known for drugs and crime. But the clus­ters of makeshift hous­ing that run up Rio’s hill­sides are also the birth­place of the city’s car­ni­val pa­rade, samba mu­sic and street art.

As part of prepa­ra­tions that be­gan in 2008 for host­ing the Olympic Games, au­thor­i­ties pushed to make these once no-go ar­eas safer by tar­get­ing rul­ing drug gangs. The cur­rent na­tional eco­nomic cri­sis has ex­ac­er­bated deep in­equal­ity and re­sulted in fund­ing cuts for se­cu­rity forces, how­ever, and au­thor­i­ties ad­mit they have again lost con­trol of most slums they once de­clared “paci­fied.”

“The ques­tion is very com­plex to sim­ply say if it is safe or not,” said Marcelo Armstrong, who has been tak­ing tourists to fave­las for 25 years.

“De­pends where, de­pends what day, de­pends what cir­cum­stance. That’s the re­al­ity of Rio now.”

This year, Rio has seen an es­ti­mated av­er­age of 15 shoot­ings a day in­volv­ing po­lice and heav­ily armed gangs. Hun­dreds of civil­ians, many of whom are res­i­dents of the fave­las, have been killed or wounded in the cross­fire. A study con­ducted by the coun­try’s Na­tional Con­fed­er­a­tion of Com­merce and Tourism said the in­crease in crime was re­spon­si­ble for a loss of $200 mil­lion to Rio’s tourism sec­tor be­tween Jan­uary and Au­gust of this year. In 2015, Rio made $5 bil­lion from tourism.

While tourists have oc­ca­sion­ally been shot af­ter ac­ci­den­tally veer­ing into fave­las, the re­cent death of a Span­ish tourist at the hands of po­lice put a spot­light on in­se­cu­rity in Rio and its slums.

In Oc­to­ber, po­lice opened fire on a car car­ry­ing Maria Esper­anza Jimenez Ruiz and her rel­a­tives as they left a walk­ing tour of the city’s most pop­u­lous slum, Rocinha, which has been at the cen­ter of a bloody bat­tle be­tween ri­val gangs and au­thor­i­ties.

Of­fi­cers claimed her driver failed to stop at a check­point and drove a ve­hi­cle with darkly tinted win­dows that were not iden­ti­fied as be­long­ing to a tour com­pany. The driver said he never saw the check­point and was not asked to stop. Two po­lice of­fi­cers are be­ing in­ves­ti­gated on sus­pi­cion of man­slaugh­ter, and au­thor­i­ties have an­nounced they will press crim­i­nal charges against a tour guide and agency for fail­ing to in­form the tourists of the risks in­volved in vis­it­ing the slum.

“I un­der­stand the tourists’ cu­rios­ity and I un­der­stand the de­sire of a com­mu­nity to be part of the city,” said Valeria Ara­gao, who heads Rio’s tourism po­lice and is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the case. “What I don’t un­der­stand is the ir­re­spon­si­ble at­ti­tude of a tourism agency and a guide to choose and en­cour­age a visit to this place – when even res­i­dents feel un­safe.”

Ara­gao ac­knowl­edged tour guides do not cur­rently have ac­cess to of­fi­cial po­lice bul­letins and in­stead rely on news re­ports and lo­cal favela guides to eval­u­ate if a slum is safe. In re­sponse to the shoot­ing, tourism and se­cu­rity au­thor­i­ties have cre­ated a com­mit­tee to reg­u­late tourism in slums.

The city coun­cil is also con­sid­er­ing a mea­sure that would re­quire agen­cies of­fer­ing favela tours to get li­a­bil­ity in­sur­ance and in­form lo­cal po­lice be­fore each tour. The agen­cies would have to work with a lo­cal guide and drive tourists in an iden­ti­fied ve­hi­cle, with­out tinted win­dows.

Armstrong, the favela tour guide, said he wor­ries au­thor­i­ties are trans­fer­ring the blame for the tourist’s death from the po­lice to the tourism sec­tor. “There will be a day when travel agen­cies will be ac­cused of ex­pos­ing their clients to risk be­cause they are walk­ing in Copaca­bana,” Armstrong said. “If the gov­ern­ment is not able to guar­an­tee se­cu­rity, it is their fault and no­body else’s.”

Just days af­ter the Span­ish tourist was killed, Michiel Wi­jn­stok, a tourist from the Netherlands, went on Armstrong’s tour in Vila Canoas, a favela that bor­ders the elite Gavea Golf Club.

“You hear the sto­ries,” said Wi­jn­stok, a fi­nance man­ager who was in Rio for the first time. “But I wanted to see it with my own eyes.”

On the hour­long tour, the group strolled down al­leys shad­owed by tan­gled elec­tric­ity ca­bles and lis­tened to Armstrong ex­plain the his­tory of the slums and their ar­chi­tec­ture. Part of the $25-a-per­son charge goes to two char­ity-run schools in the slums.

At the tour’s end, the group or­dered caipir­in­has at a bar and ex­changed smiles with the lo­cals, who thanked them for their busi­ness.

For many favela res­i­dents, tourism is a life­line in neigh­bor­hoods where for­mal jobs are scarce.

An­dreia Caval­cante sells snacks and drinks to for­eign­ers and their driv­ers from a stand in the Vidi­gal slum, just up the hill from the ritzy Le­blon neigh­bor­hood.

On a typ­i­cal week­end, Caval­cante used to make $480 (1,600 re­als) sell­ing pasteis – a sa­vory pas­try filled with meat or cheese. Now, she makes about half that.

“This is due to the com­mu­nity be­ing a bit un­sta­ble with all that is hap­pen­ing,” she said.

Near the top of Vidi­gal, tourists can stay at the Mi­rante do Arvrao ho­tel, where a suite with a panoramic view of the city and ocean costs $170 a night. On the week­ends, bars in the neigh­bor­hood of­fer live samba mu­sic and are packed with both Brazil­ians and for­eign­ers.

Daniel Graziani, an owner of the ho­tel who lives in Vidi­gal with his wife and 1-year-old daugh­ter, said he be­lieves there is a bright fu­ture for tourism in fave­las, but se­cu­rity con­cerns are grow­ing.

Just re­cently, he of­fered to book a cou­ple ar­riv­ing from Paris into an­other ho­tel be­cause of a po­lice op­er­a­tion in Vidi­gal.

The clients de­murred. The op­er­a­tion ended af­ter a cou­ple of hours, and the cou­ple had a safe stay at the Mi­rante do Arvrao.

Graziani thinks it is pre­ma­ture to say it is no longer safe to visit fave­las and be­lieves there is a fu­ture for tourism at Vidi­gal, de­spite the tur­moil. He still of­fers a “Favela Ex­pe­ri­ence” pack­age in which tourists can spend the day learn­ing how to make fei­joada, a bean and meat stew, or fly a kite known as “pipa,” which is typ­i­cal in the fave­las.

“Peo­ple are still in­ter­ested in an­other type of tourism that goes be­yond the main­stream,” he said.

Peo­ple over­look Rio from the Vidi­gal slum. In 2015, the city made $5 bil­lion from tourism.

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