Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

The Rise of Voyeuristic Favela Tourism in Complexo do Alemão, Rio de Janeiro

Inside a little red cable car, we journeyed atop several of the favela's hills. Looking down below, the density and vastness of Complexo do Alemão, a complex of thirteen favelas in Rio de Janeiro's North Zone, is nothing short of astonishing. Tin roofs glint in the sunlight, clothes hang on the line of top floor terraces, children play ball in soccer pitches, and people go about their daily business. It's a scene of everyday life observed from a moving distance. Once on the ground, near Itararé station, we were offered a different perspective. The structure is loud and imposing, standing out of place amidst the vernacular architecture of the surrounding area. As the gondolas flit past us overhead, they feel intrusive, as if we were all but an attraction at a zoo.

Looking down below on the teleférico of Complexo do Alemão, Rio de Janeiro

Yet this teleférico structure was intended to benefit the favela residents by increasing their mobility, and empowering them through connectivity to the "formal city." Rather than having residents commute by foot or "combi" van, the electrically-powered cable car reduces the residents' travel time to sixteen minutes, spanning 3.5 kilometers and stopping at six different stations. Yet, out of the more than 70, 000 inhabitants of Complexo do Alemão, only a reported 12,000 people use it daily.

Latin America was the first place to look towards cable cars as a viable means of urban transportation, most notably starting up in Medellin, Colombia and Caracas, Venezuela. Thus, in July 2011 as part of the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC) launched by former President Lula da Silva, the cable car system was inaugurated at the cost of R$210 million, or US$133 million. Besides removing homes for the stations' construction, the massive budget meant that investments in other infrastructural and social works suffered as a consequence.

A second, albeit smaller, teleférico structure was built in Morro da Providência, Rio's oldest favela, under the Morar Carioca upgrading program. The project removed the community's main public square, and though construction was completed in May 2013, it is still not yet operational. Located near the Maracanã soccer stadium, which will play host to several FIFA World Cup games, it also sports views of the port and downtown Rio, factors which city officials have deemed to be significant tourist attractors.

Now the city wants to construct its third cable car structure in Rio's largest favela, Rocinha. However, residents are adamantly protesting against its installation, citing that other basic services including health, sanitation, and educational improvements are much more fundamental to the community.

Cable Cars of Complexo do Alemão, Rio de Janeiro

In the wake of mega-event planning, visible grand-scale works are a quick fix for a city whose development is being monitored closely on an international scale. Residents of Alemão now claim that their cable car has not improved their quality of life, as demonstrated by the amount of residents using the transportation method, or rather the lack there of. The cable cars also raise ethical concerns over the type of favela tourism being increasingly seen throughout Rio due to their voyeuristic nature of the poor. Unlike, say, a Jane Jacob's Walk which centers around observing, learning and connecting with the community one is visiting, cable cars promote a sense of separation.

Though successful in other cities, who do the current cable cars benefit more, the residents or the tourists? Is it right for the city to continue investing in this transportation method when favelas still require basic public services?

Credits: Images by Caitlin Dixon. Data linked to sources.