At the heart of travel is a curiosity to experience the unfamiliar, the exotic. Yet, the most transformational travel goes beyond this—it’s an intentional act of challenging ourselves to overcome discomfort, the complacency of our habits, and the one-sidedness of our world views. The anxiety we feel in these situations means we’re growing, and through this process we gain unquantifiable rewards. We appreciate our privileges, we question the foundations of our cultures, and we develop a sense of oneness with those who aren’t “us” but now are closer than ever to being a part of “us.”
We can’t empathize with the street vendor struggling to pay her children’s school tuition when we stay in sterile, luxury hotels and resorts. We don’t understand a country’s self-concept when we’re shepherded from sight to sight by a flag-toting guide reciting a history lesson memorized from a Wikipedia page.
That was the travel of our parents’ generation, but our generation longs for something more. We seek the nuanced, unsheltered reality, and, above all, we seek authenticity. It’s not enough for us to taste “the world’s richest dark chocolate” from a duty-free shop in the airport. We must meet the city’s oldest chocolatier family and sweat in a stuffy room as we mash the cacao beans with the 80 year-old woman who lives for chocolate.
At the same time, we know travel should enrich more than just the traveler. Conscious of the adverse effects of travel on developing communities, cultures, and the environment, we seek to use travel as a wider force for good. As such, we’re now adding volunteering, purchases from local artisans, and low-impact lodging to our itineraries.
The industry is just starting to wake up to these shifts, and countless studies are revealing just how different Millennials’ travel preferences are from our parents. A report by digital agency HUGE sums it up nicely: “Authenticity is the watchword for the next generation of travelers. Travel companies that want to appeal to the Millennial generation need to offer experiences that provide global, socially conscious perspectives.”
And that’s exactly why I started Favela Experience. Having first visited Rio’s favelas a year ago, I quickly saw the dichotomy between their beauty and how the world perceives them. There’s an unmatched energy here that pervades in the streets and alleys. You can’t pass through here without being overcome by the clashing sound waves of funk carioca beats blaring from a window, yells of football fans celebrating a Flamengo goal, and the whizzing of mototaxis. What’s more is that favela residents are welcoming, hardworking, and resilient people who want the best for their families and communities. Of course, this all contrasts the sensationalism and stereotypes that movies and news feed us.
Nonetheless, I’m not alone in seeing the draw of these fascinating communities as apparently over half of all visitors to Rio plan to go to favelas. Moreover, PRI’s The World even went so far as to say favelas are fast becoming “cool” tourist destinations.
So, with a desire for cultural immersion and positive impact in favelas, my solution came from my year spent in various homestays around Latin America. I learned that living in the homes of locals is the best way to experience a foreign culture, and the income that hosts earn can be significant. So, I asked, why not bring this type of authentic accommodations to Rio’s favelas, and eventually the rest of the developing world? I envisioned an online marketplace tailored for this local context, allowing travelers to rent rooms and apartments while increasing the incomes of host families. Guests and hosts would share meals, explore the city, and experience local nightlife together, facilitating cross-cultural understanding and changing favelas’ negative reputation.
If this works, then travelers will leave with a broader perspective and residents will earn income to invest in their families’ education, health, and housing. Maybe, just maybe, the world will be a better place for it.