Beset by Violence, Rio Rethinks Safety of Slum Tourism

Brazil’s economic downturn has spurred a spike in violence, prompting reconsideration of whether it is safe for tourists to visit Rio’s favelas. Although beset with drugs and crime, the slums attract international visitors seeking a close look at authentic local culture.

As authorities in Brazil tackled crime earlier this decade, opening Rio de Janeiro’s hillside favela slums to tourists seemed like a winning idea, says the Associated Press. The views are breathtaking, the slum residents could cash in, and foreign visitors would see another part of the city — not just Copacabana beach. Now soaring violence in the hillside communities is rekindling a concern: Are favelas safe to visit? Rio’s favelas have long been known for drugs and crime. But the clusters of makeshift housing that run up Rio’s hillsides are also the birthplace of the city’s Carnival parade, samba music and street art. As part of preparations that began in 2008 for hosting the Olympic Games, authorities pushed to make these once no-go areas safer by targeting ruling drug gangs.

Now, a national economic crisis has exacerbated deep inequality and resulted in funding cuts for security forces, however, and authorities admit they have again lost control of most slums they once declared “pacified.” This year, Rio has seen an estimated average of 15 shootings a day involving police and heavily armed gangs. Hundreds of civilians, many of whom are residents of the favelas, have been killed or wounded in the crossfire. A study by the country’s National Confederation of Commerce and Tourism said the increase in crime was responsible for a loss of $200 million to Rio’s tourism sector between January and August of this year. In 2015, Rio made $5 billion from tourism.