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Social Anthropology

A day-trip to the bottom

München, 02/13/2017

From slum to tourist attraction: An interview with Eveline Dürr on the unlikely but booming phenomenon of slum tourism.

Source: picture-alliancedpa / Fotografia

What sorts of tourists choose to visit slums – and why?
Eveline Dürr:
Slums attract not only backpackers, but also tourists of the premium class. The neighborhoods inhabited by the poor are so remote from what tourists usually get to see, and that in itself gives them a certain appeal. They offer a stark counterpoint to the world of the glossy brochures and the international-style hotels, which all look alike. Moreover, it is possible to put on a show, to “exhibit” poverty in an aesthetic manner. When one hears the word favela, what usually comes into one’s head beside violence is a group of brightly painted dwellings on a hillside – the kind of colorful and seemingly charming façade often featured in films and reproduced on souvenirs. This is the aestheticized version of a stigmatized area, for the delectation of the customers. Of course, everyone knows that this façade is a mask that hides poverty and social inequality. But then, very few tourists spend their whole vacation in slums. A visit to the slums counts as a day-trip, an excursion. Afterwards, most visitors return to their air-conditioned hotels.

Does redevelopment make slums uninteresting for tourists?
Undoubtedly! Take Rio de Janeiro, for instance, where this type of tourism is experiencing a boom. As a result, tourists tend to think that all slums are the same. So in order to distinguish themselves from one another, the favelas try to establish their own brand names. One lays claim to being the oldest in the city, another claims to be the favela that has made the greatest progress in reducing the crime rate. Unfortunately, stressing reductions in violence is not always a good marketing strategy. The favela Santa Marta in Rio presents itself as a showcase for the success of its efforts to curtail the influence of the drug bosses. But tourists may respond to this by saying something like: “Oh I was really looking forward to seeing a real drug boss.” Gentrified slums, in which the level of poverty has declined, are of little interest to tourists. There are several favelas in which guides will explicitly draw attention to the continuing presence of violence: “Look over here – those are bullet holes.”

A few weeks ago, Karl Lagerfeld chose Cuba as the backdrop for the presentation of his latest collection. Why is this location so interesting?
Dürr: In Cuba one has a similar dynamic. What most people know about the island comes from films and political discussions, but we do not really know it, because it has been closed to us for so long. And in addition to being poor, Cuba has always had this exotic and erotic flair. Music videos that were made here often depict an easy-going attitude to life that is diametrically opposed to the Western obsession with performance and achievement. In addition, there is something about Cuba that induces a feeling of nostalgia. It seems to us as if Cubans still live in an age that has long vanished for us, and so people feel that they have to visit the island before it is “too late”. In a world that is undergoing dynamic development, rapid transformation and wrenching change, there are not many places left where one can still observe the old ways. The knowledge that this is a state that cannot last much longer makes Cuba especially attractive for many. Lagerfeld simply combined this mythology with luxury and cult-star glamor. And of course that will make it still more appealing to tourists.

The natives were excluded from Lagerfeld’s fashion show. What does the local population gain when their homes become targets for tourists?
Dürr: There is no easy or unequivocal answer to that question. If one asks who becomes involved in this sort of event and who reaps the greatest benefit, then one answer is – the broker. The broker is the indispensable intermediary who knows everyone of any significance and moves easily in all sorts of circles. It is a role that requires a very special combination of talents. That begins with language. Not everyone can speak English with the fluency and command of tone that is necessary for success in the tourist business. A small section of the population may be in a position to acquire a share in the gains associated with the stimulation of the local economy, as in the case of the Bed & Breakfast houses that have begun to appear in the favelas in Rio. But these will inevitably attract outsiders who will try to break into the market. And this also gives rise to new potential for conflict.

So slum tourism does not offer a way to escape poverty?
Dürr: Slum tourism does not really address the deeply rooted structural inequities that dominate the development of a city. Some quarters of the city that one once tried to hide have suddenly become impossible to ignore, but that does not mean that the social inequalities have become any less shocking. On the contrary, these inequalities may well have increased, if only the few have the chance to participate in and profit from these developments, and the majority continue to feel marginalized.

How exotic does a slum need to be in order to attract tourists?
Dürr: The urban areas we selected for our research project had already acquired a certain cachet. Michael Jackson’s video They Don’t Care About Us was shot in Santa Marta in Rio, and that made the favela famous overnight. Trench Town in Kingston has become a global imaginary, thanks to Bob Marley’s songs. The crucial distinction between these locations and the poor areas of our own cities is that we have all heard about them. We believe we know them, but of course we don’t. The combination of stigma and brand is what enables them to become locations, in the cinematographic sense, and this in turn makes them interesting for tourism. And it would of course be wrong to give the impression that the slum as a ‘product’ is restricted to the Southern hemisphere. In the rich cities of the North, there are places where similar constellations of forces are at work – the Reeperbahn in Hamburg or certain parts of Berlin, where the guides are often drawn from the ranks of the homeless or are former drug addicts.

Do you regard such efforts to attract tourists to disadvantaged areas as a positive development?
Dürr: I think it is more important to point clearly to the structures that produce such inequality. And that is an issue in which society as a whole is implicated and not any individual quarter of a city.

duerr_webEveline Dürr is a professor at LMU’s Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. As part of her DFG-funded project on Slum Tourism in the Americas, she has been studying the touristification of slums in Mexico City, Kingston, Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans.

LMU’s Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology will host a conference on the phenomenon of slum tourism under the title “From Stigma to Brand: Commodifying and Aestheticizing Urban Poverty and Violence,” which takes place on 16-18 February 2017.