Sunday, 16 December 2012

In conversation with Lonely Planet about Brazil, the World Cup & Olympics

As Brazil prepares itself for the football World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in Rio in 2016, tourist numbers are expected to rise from over five million last year to 10 million by the Olympics, Flavio Dino, the president of Brazilian tourist board Embratur told me for the piece I wrote for The Times in August.
So, what does this mean, in terms of Brazil’s future as a tourist and cultural destination? I caught up with Regis St. Louis, coordinating author of the Lonely Planet guide to Brazil and author of Lonely Planet Rio de Janeiro, to find out.

Why is Brazil such a beloved country internationally?
Brazil is one of those enchanting places that's hard to get out of your head. The people are remarkably open and friendly, the beaches and tropical landscapes are stunning, and the mix of cultural diversity and natural attractions (the wildlife-packed Amazon, the dramatic falls of Iguaçu), are world-class. There's also something of a mystique about Brazil: it brandishes a tropical, easy-going allure that's difficult to quantify. Brazil is also an undeniably sexy place. From its addictive samba and bossa nova beats to its seasides packed with bronzed beach-goers. Add to that some of the world's best footballers, and its rising status as a once-underachieving country finally living up to its potential -- and it's easy to see why so many people are rooting for Brazil.

In 2010, overseas visitors to Brazil was 5.2 million, with the country the 43rd most visited globally – does that surprise you?
Yes! I am stunned that it's only the 43rd most visited country! It's particularly surprising in light of my own conversations with people who have visited the country and generally speak quite highly of their experiences there.

What prevents more people from visiting?
I think there's still an intimidation factor about Brazil. International media and films tend to highlight violence in the favelas and high crime rates in the urban centres. Most people who haven't been seem genuinely interested to travel to Brazil, but the first question they ask me is, 'Is it safe?' There's also the language barrier, and its seemingly great distance. To those perhaps more used to travelling in Europe, hopping on a plane to South America still seems an overly ambitious proposition.

What are the top 5 cities for tourists in Brazil?
Rio de Janeiro
Foz do Iguaçu
São Paulo

How do they differ?
They vary quite a bit in terms of geography, design, cuisine and ethnic makeup.
Rio is Brazil's second largest city, and sometimes called 'cidade maravilhosa' (marvellous city) for its beauty -- a city planted among beaches and rainforest-covered morros (small mountains). Foz do Iguaçu is a small city -- and visited mostly for its proximity to the stunning Iguaçu waterfalls. São Paulo is South America's largest city, a skyscraper-packed megalopolis with the country's best restaurants and museums. It moves at a frenetic pace. Florianópolis is a well-developed city in the south, most of which lies on the Ilha de Santa Catarina, a pretty island whose beaches and scenery are famous in Brazil -- if less known outside the country. Salvador is one of the country's oldest cities, and it has a beautiful colonial centre. It's in the Northeast, which is home to more a large Afro-Brazilian population; the food, music and culture have notable connections to West Africa.

Will this change in the lead up/after the World Cup and Olympics?
I think visitor numbers will grow in some of the host cities. Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Porto Alegre and Cuiaba in particular see very few foreign travellers but have great potential. Cuiaba is near great wildlife watching in the Pantanal, Porto Alegre is home to the cowboy-esque gaucho culture, while Curitiba is a model of sustainability, with its innovative transportation network, recycling and other green-minded initiatives. The big city of Belo Horizonte is famed for its bar scene and has some great museums -- though remains virtually unknown to foreign travellers. I think we'll also see a renewed interest in Brasilia (another host city) and its wild urban design. There's much to discover in Brazil

Is Brazil seen as more than just beaches and Carnival to tourists today?
Every country has its stereotypes and Brazil struggles to shake its image as the land of Carnival, beaches and the general air of hedonism. Yet, with more attention on Brazil with Olympics and World Cup fever underway, more people are discovering the enormous cultural and natural riches of this country.  Those that have visited Brazil -- apart from those who come only for Carnival -- largely have a richer understanding of the nation. Tapping into Brazil's great music scene, sampling diverse regional cuisines, and experiencing its raw beauty: these are some of the highlights of a trip to Brazil, which is what more tourists are interested in when planning a trip.

Are there particular tourism trends happening in Brazil?
There has been a lot of interest in Rio's favelas over the last decade. There are a growing number of outfits lead tours into the favelas  -- some are sustainably minded and invest in the community (like one group that hires local mototaxi drivers to zip people around), while others are simply profit-driven. Some of the favelas have also grown safer in the last few years owing to government initiatives (clearing out the drug lords, establishing a police presence, then investing in needed social and physical infrastructure). And there are new ways to see Brazil's other side, from staying in guesthouses in the favelas to attending weekend parties or even joining an escola de samba (the competing groups -- most of which are set in favelas -- that stage Rio's Carnival), and participating in the massive celebration.

Aside from that, as visitors grow more savvy about Brazil's attractions, you're finding more people engaging in specialized tours -- staying in jungle lodges in the Amazon (some which are decidedly high-end), booking tropical island getaways on pristine islands in the northeast. There's also an increased focus on regional tourism -- exploring the colonial towns of Minas Gerais or island-and beach-hopping in Bahia -- rather than trying to tick off all the country's highlights on one trip.

What impact do you think the World Cup and The Olympics will have on tourism in Brazil?
I foresee a huge growth in tourism in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and São Paulo, and smaller growth on second-tier cities like those mentioned above (Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Cuiaba and Brasilia), as well as general growth overall. The Brazilian government seems poised to promote the nation as a promising tourist destination, and I think their investment will bear fruit. We'll see new flight connections to Europe, and perhaps more international flights to places like Belo Horizonte and Manaus -- gateway to the Amazon. While the Brazilian real is high now, perhaps we'll see prices go down with the advent of more hotels and tour offerings -- as an increased competition helps drive down prices.

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