Poorism takes a life

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A Spanish tourist in Rio de Janeiro is shot dead at a military police checkpoint while touring one of the city’s infamous hill slums called favelas. It calls into question the practice of using poverty as a tourist attraction.

It happened this week. The victim was a 67-year-old woman whose car failed to stop at a military police checkpoint while touring Rocinha, the largest of Rio’s notorious favelas.

With her were two relatives, another tourist and a tour guide. The other officers realized that the car was on a favela tour and held their fire, but by then, the unfortunate visitor was already mortally wounded.

She was the fourth tourist shot in a favela in less than a year, and the third to die. The other shootings were blamed on drug gangs and at least one victim was thought to have wandered into a favela on his own.

It comes only a month after military police had been assigned to Rocinha, the scene of almost daily shoot-outs between rival drug gangs, as well as gangs and police.

Roughly one in five of Rio de Janeiro’s 6 million residents lives in one of its 1,000 ad hoc hillside shantytowns known as favelas. They are home for Brazil’s urban poor, who are pushed out — and itas rural poor, who are kept out — of the city’s urban core.

Rio’s favelas are hardly the only ones in Brazil, but theirs are the best known.  The 1959 film “Black Orpheus” and the Michael Jackson music video “They Don’t Care About Us” each were shot in a Rio favela.

Most are controlled by ruthless drug gangs, some of them armed heavily enough to occasionally shoot down a police helicopter. Efforts by the police and the army to “pacify” these neighborhoods yield little lasting success.

Whether in Brazil’s favelas, South Africa’s  all-Black townships like Soweto,  Palestinian refugee camps or Paris housing projects known as banlieues, organized tours of poor communities have become  a kind of cottage industry within international travel.

Nor is the United States immune from this trend. You can find ghetto tours in from Harlem and the Bronx in New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles.  There also were the disaster tours in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

The Rocinha shooting calls into question the whole phenomenon of treating poor communities as tourist attractions, cultural Disneylands for affluent tourists.

(And let’s be clear: In the eyes of the poor whose neighborhoods you visit, if you can afford to fly to another part of the world purely for enjoyment, you are affluent, regardless of how you feel about your bank statement.)

There are varying names for this phenomenon — poverty tourism, slum tourism, ghetto tourism.  It’s even evolved its own term within the travel industry:


Its advocates contend that such tours are the only way to get well-heeled tourists from the West — and increasingly, from China — to relate to some of the world’s most desperately impoverished citizens.

Only subjecting them to this kind of full-immersion shock treatment, they argue, will trigger any empathy for their fellow human beings. They need an honest, unblinking look at what’s real in the world — and let’s face it, a lot of what’s real is anything but pretty.

Critics counter that all this is little more than recreational anthropology, one slippery step above the human zoos of years gone by. Far from offering any real insight, they’re just letting tourists pay for the — wait for it — privilege of feeling superior.

Even if some of these slum tour operators have the best intentions, the critics insist, they can’t control the attitudes their clients bring to these tours.

Regardless of which side of the argument anyone comes down on, it’s time for the travel industry to hold an honest — and probably painful — conversation about poorism.

Preferably before some other hapless tourist returns home in a box.