Enterprising businesses turning Rio’s favelas into tourist-magnet marketplaces

8 July 2019 09:08
A favela district in Rio

Enterprising small businesses are drawing tourists from around the globe into Rio de Janeiro’s often-maligned favela districts, creating ‘safe’ visiting times and taking advantage of visitors’ desire to explore the lesser-seen side of the city.

Rio’s favelas have long been seen as no-go zones, unsafe and undesirable. Segregated from the rest of the city, they have historically been neglected by governments, and portrayed in films as riven by drugs wars and crime.

But research conducted by Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) and published in the Journal of Business Research shows that small businesses are coming together to use this very image to their advantage, bringing in foreign visitors and creating a unique marketplace environment at the bottom of the business pyramid and in a stigmatised community.

LUMS Marketing Lecturer Josi Fernandes led the study. She visited Rio to meet with the micro-entrepreneurs and experience what they offer tourists by bringing them to the favelas. Josi said the businesses had created an effective ‘safe’ period for visiting, using social media to draw in tourists by both playing on their darker reputation and providing assurances of a lack of ‘real’ danger.

“While favela residents recognise that they live in stigmatised places, and that they are often viewed as second-class citizens and labelled as criminals, they celebrate belonging to the community,” said Josi. “Favelas remain marginalised, and it can be a struggle for residents to make their voices heard. For some of them, their objective is to change the perception of outsiders and replace it with one of a favela as a safe place, one they want to visit.

“The businesses who bring in the tourists manage to break down the barriers and find that balance between the perception of danger and the seduction of being able to explore and be a part of the same. They entice people to visit by taking advantage of the history and image of the area, including the dangers that are inherent, but provide assurances that it is not so dangerous during their visit and make them feel sufficiently safe. Timing is as important as the make-up of the tours.

“What these entrepreneurs offer is different from the services provided by tour companies who are based outside the favelas and who bring in tourists who have little or no engagement with the favela communities, creating what one of them described as a ‘zoo-like tour’.

“They set up walking tours to areas that the tour buses could not reach, allowing visitors to engage with locals, make stops at shops and art workshops, and chat with residents. Tourists have the chance to buy food, clothes, arts and crafts and really engage with the area.

“The businesses coordinated with each other to ensure success, and create a new image of the favelas for those who came on the tours. There can be the feeling that they are using the image of the favelas to their advantage, but there is much more to their entrepreneurship than that – they need the image to make the marketplace stand out, but are also working to improve those perceptions.”

One key element in the success of these businesses in bringing tourists to the favelas has been the use of social media.

One example is the Facebook Marathon of Entrepreneurship project, which offers a free one-day course for favela dwellers on creating and managing FanPages and Facebook profiles for business purposes. These pages allow the business owners to show the outside world a different perspective of the districts than that often portrayed in the media, where crime, drugs wars and negative perceptions are rife.

“The common narrative that is expounded by the media creates fear and stigma,” said Josi. “These businesses have to overcome that, and they use the internet and social media to help them do that. 

“There are virtual tours tourists can take before they come to see what the favelas look like, using Google Maps. Entrepreneurs post photos, and visitors are able to communicate their experiences through online stories, photos and reviews of positive experiences, enabling potential customers to work out how they can engage with what might otherwise be an unfamiliar and intimidating area.

“The digital world makes areas that were once inaccessible, accessible to visitors from around the world and help to shift the narrative for the favelas and enable them to become the location for novel experiences.”