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When Olympic spectators opt for 'slum tourism,' who benefits?

While slum tourism is arguably exploitive, some say it brings a welcome economic boost to impoverished neighborhoods.

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Residents move about the slum 'Cidade de Deus,' or City of God, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on July 22.

Silvia Izquierdo/AP

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While in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics, some tourists are choosing to look beyond the sheen of the games downtown to see harder-to-reach parts of the city.

In what has come to be known as “slum tourism,” some have opted to stay in the impoverished favelas that stretch across Rio’s hills, a world unto themselves, physically and economically separated from the rest of the city.

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For 20 euros (about $22 US) per night each, four French tourists opted to stay in a small hostel in Babilonia, a favela overlooking Rio. “It's a little small for four, but there's a bunk-bed on each side,” said one of the tourists to France24.

The bright colors and energy of the neighborhood came as a surprise, said the tourists. “We were expecting something more run-down, less colorful. This feels joyful,” one of them said.

While slum tourism, now popular in places including South Africa, India, and the United States (Detroit), is arguably exploitive, some say it brings a welcome economic boost to these neighborhoods.

“If a client from my hostel takes a motorcycle taxi, it generates a profit for the driver who goes and has a burger at the restaurant down the street. In the end it helps keep the local economy going. It's a virtuous cycle,” favela hostel owner Eduardo Figueiredo told France24.

Roughly a quarter of Rio’s six million residents live in favelas. They hoped that the $12 billion spent on the Olympics would improve living conditions for the poor of Rio, who, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported, are often “ignored, or – worse – hidden from view when Rio hosts lavish global events.”

Promises of sweeping upgrades to the favelas, including better sewage, paved roads, plazas, and social service centers, so far have not materialized, say some locals.

“The [Olympic Games] investment has exacerbated inequality,” Leonardo Soares dos Santos, a historian at Fluminense Federal University, told the Monitor. “It has not been distributed evenly, which is Rio’s historic problem.”

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Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, denies that Rio’s Olympic investment has been diverted from the poorer parts of the city to the wealthy ones.

“It’s crazy to say there is no investment in poor areas,” he told The Guardian last month. “If people say this, they don’t know the geography [of the city].”

He told The Guardian that, for now, he feels positive about hosting the Olympics, which have boosted the local economy in the midst of a serious recession.

“Things are happening because of the Olympics,” Mr. Paes told the Guardian. “Even in a time of crisis we keep pushing. We are inaugurating things almost every week.”