Vitriolic Facebook comments, anonymous hate e-mails, academics’ recriminating insinuations—I’m very used to receiving criticism. I quickly learned after dedicating myself to Favela Experience that I’d have to defend the ethics and impact of what we do amid a niche of the travel industry that’s so (rightfully) lambasted. Still, it took longer to realize the spiteful passion our work triggers in often well-intentioned people.
On one end of the spectrum, I’m amused by messages like the following use of my website’s email contact form:
Opposite that is The Huffington Post article “One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: On the Exoticization of Rio’s Favelas” by Gabriela Kruschewsky. The piece is a 1600-word indictment of our alleged exploitation of favela residents and irresponsibility toward visitors.
Ultimately, the author summarizes her point: “The problem is that only half of the information is being presented, only the pleasant half. And the way that it is being presented fails to convey that there are extreme implications that may hurt both the residents and the outsiders flocking to immerse themselves in the ‘real Rio’ come time for the World Cup.”
I can’t address the article’s arguments in earnest because of its sheer disregard for journalistic standards. Op-eds should go beyond feelings to facts. Yet, what should I expect when the writer’s recent portfolio includes “A Fantastic Game Of Dress-Up Transforms Baby Into Your Favorite TV Characters” on HuffPo and “23 Snazzy Nail Ideas For Thanksgiving” on BuzzFeed?
The glaring oversight is how the article cites no one involved with Favela Experience, neither me, team members, hosts, nor guests. It’s clear she made no attempt to interview anyone. Moreover, the author even admits that by not trying Favela Experience, she can’t conclusively judge the business. Still, she could’ve come much closer to doing so after minimal research, which would’ve yielded dozens of contacts, but I only discovered the article thanks to a Google Alerts notification.
Above all, declaring positive portrayals of marginalized places and people to be half-truths only further marginalizes them. Favelas don’t need a warning label as the writer asserts because international mainstream media already inflict far worse damage to their reputation. After all, is it wrong the luxury hotels on Copacabana beach don’t publicize how polluted the ocean water and even the showers on the sand are?
Just because these communities have dire problems (evident to any of our guests who quickly spot overflowing, street-side trash piles and open sewers), doesn’t mean visitors can’t appreciate the vast good here for the benefit of residents. Beauty is present everywhere here, and it’s damaging to always classify it in the context of poor education, health, and sanitation. A DataPopular study revealed 66% of favela residents don’t want to move, so favelas must have some advantages.
Yes, there are wrong ways for others to visit developing areas, but these communities can rise beyond even economic gain when travelers meaningfully interact with locals. By patronizing homestays as well as resident-led tours and establishments, visitors learn the reality of life in these places, both positive and negative. Travelers see value beyond the material, and the perception of worthlessness begins to change for favelas.
Favelas and similar communities around the world desperately need positive images to break unproductive stereotypes that further exclude and isolate them. Only when we all recognize the good, not as a mere afterthought to the bad, will we integrate all parts into a more just society.