Brazil: A Far Cry from Paradise

Brazil: A Far Cry from Paradise

    Brazil lags behind other tourism destinations because the
    authorities have not been serious
    about marketing. The
    official tourism agency, Embratur, seems to think that Brazil
    does not need to sell
    itself and that the free publicity from the
    annual Carnaval plus a few colorful posters will bring in tourists.

    John Fitzpatrick


    Brazil should be a tourist paradise but is not—far from it. The country has so much to offer that almost any taste can
    be catered for, yet we have a trickle instead of a torrent of tourists. I would like to look at some of the reasons why this is
    and make a few suggestions on how to improve things.

    Every unsatisfied tourist, who has been ripped off or robbed, goes home and complains to his relatives and
    acquaintances, thereby putting off prospective visitors. This is bad, not only for the economy but for Brazil’s image abroad.

    Look at some of the attractions Brazil can offer the tourist. If you like nature, then there is the Amazon and Pantanal,
    both bigger than most European countries and packed with fauna and flora. If you like beach life, then there is a coastline
    7,400 kilometers long, offering some of the best beaches in the world.

    If you like the sun, then the North and Northeast offer an unlimited supply. If you like historical cities and beautiful
    buildings, then Minas Gerais and Bahia offer gems like Ouro Preto and Salvador respectively.

    If you are interested in architecture and urban planning, visit São Paulo and learn from the mistakes of the world’s
    worst architects. If you like magnificent scenery, visit the waterfalls at Foz de Iguaçu or the tablelands of Chapada dos
    Guimarães in Mato Grosso.

    If you like folk culture, visit the southern states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina where Hansel and Gretel
    gingerbread houses, built by German immigrants, can be found, along with an annual beer festival in Blumenau.

    If you really want to go where few men have ever been before, visit the island of Fernando de Noronha off the coast
    of Pernambuco, a nature reserve where the number of tourists is limited.

    Sports Unlimited

    If you like sports, then you can go surfing, hang gliding, white water rafting, horse riding, hill walking, mountain
    climbing, scuba diving, fishing, hunting, or even join in the football and volleyball games played on every beach in the country. If
    vice is your weakness and you are into sexual tourism and drugs, then anything goes in places like Fortaleza, Recife,
    Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, especially during the Carnaval.

    If, on the other hand, you are a goody-goody politically correct type, you can do your bit to save the planet by
    encouraging eco-tourism and, to salve your social conscience, you can even visit a
    favela and come out alive (hopefully). It is fair to
    say that, with the exception of winter sports and archeological ruins, such as those found in Mexico and Peru, Brazil has
    everything to delight and attract the foreign visitor.

    With all these attractions, plus a steep fall in the value of the Real against the dollar in recent years, you would
    expect a boom in tourism but visitors are not coming in the volume you would expect. There has been an increase in the
    number of foreign visitors over the last decade, rising from 1.7 million in 1992 to 3.8 million in 2002. However, as my
    colleague from another site, Alcides Ferreira, pointed out in a recent
    article*, of the total number of tourists who traveled
    internationally in 2002 only 0.53% came to Brazil.

    Less adventurous Americans have their own country and the Caribbean, while Europeans looking for a sun tan
    prefer the Mediterranean. However, there are still plenty of more adventurous tourists whom Brazil could lure.

    These people go as far afield as Mexico, Egypt, Israel, Kenya, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, Thailand
    and Indonesia. These places are far from home, expensive to reach and most are in unstable regions with ongoing or recent
    histories of violence. Yet these tourists, who are generally better off, prefer to spend their money in these places instead of Brazil.

    Some attempts have been made to attract these big spenders by groups like Club Med and, more recently, to a
    high-class resort built at Costa do Suaípe in Bahia, but they have not been a great success. The overwhelmingly majority of visitors
    to the Suaípe complex have been Brazilians and the resort’s teething problems have worsened to such an extent that one of
    the leading investors is pulling out.

    Security Factor

    There are a number of reasons why foreigners prefer other places to Brazil, including ability to get there, the
    tourist infrastructure and, of course, security. Every time a foreign tourist is murdered in Brazil, it is big news back home and
    puts potential travelers off. But, once again, Brazil is not unique in this area.

    Some years ago Florida’s reputation as a travel spot was tarnished after a number of well-publicized killings of
    European tourists. The authorities responded by taking measures, such as ensuring that hire cars were not immediately
    recognizable and beefing up security in tourist areas.

    A Chilean tourist was recently shot dead as he walked along the beach in Guarujá, a posh resort near São Paulo. The
    murderer was an adolescent whose punishment will be no more than a couple of years in a juvenile detention center. You can
    imagine how that news was received in Chile. This teenager is reported to have been part of a gang that has been attacking
    tourists on a regular basis. Most of the victims have been Brazilians but that does not make foreigners feel any easier.

    Unless security is improved and visibly so, foreign tourists will keep away. Telling a tourist not to take his camera or
    to try and dress like a local might be common sense but does not add to the holiday spirit. Many tourists, particularly older
    people or those with children, just do not want the hassle and worry, no matter how beautiful the place.

    Poor Marketing

    One of the most important reasons why I think Brazil lags behind other destinations is that the authorities have
    simply not been serious about marketing. The official tourism agency, Embratur, seems to think that Brazil does not need to sell
    itself and that the free publicity from the annual Carnaval plus a few colorful posters of the Pão de Açucar in a travel agent’s
    window will bring in tourists.

    For example, I can’t remember ever seeing a Brazilian tourist office in Europe. As Alcides Ferreira pointed out in
    his article, although most foreign visitors to Brazil are from neighboring Argentina, the Embratur site has no Spanish
    language version.

    More importantly, nor does it have anything in English. In the course of writing this article, I entered the site several
    times and found a message in Portuguese announcing that Embratur was starting the first of a three-phase project to set up a
    Brazilian Tourism Portal. "The content you are looking for may be incomplete or has still not been published. We are working to
    overcome this quickly."

    The rest of the site in Portuguese is so slow and unwieldy that I gave up waiting. A "Zero Hunger" logo is
    prominent, showing the leaden hand of government and certainly not the kind of message to send to a tourist who does not have an
    image of Brazil as a place full of starving people.

    Other Countries Set the Pace

    Compare this lazy, indolent approach with that of other countries which rely on tourism as an important source of
    income and foreign exchange. Tourism in places like Greece, Italy and Spain is an industry with a dedicated infrastructure.

    During the peak season, scores of planes fly in daily, bringing tourists who are whisked off on comfortable buses
    and ferries to beaches and islands where decent hotels and villas await them. The northern visitor will have no
    communication problem since English and German are widely spoken and most tour companies have on-site employees from the home
    country to explain the local culture and provide practical help.

    Even a country like Scotland, which has little to offer in the way of sunshine, markets itself as one of the last
    unspoiled places in Europe, using its natural beauty and turbulent history to lure tourists of all kinds. Tens of thousands cram the
    narrow streets and wynds of Edinburgh every summer for the arts festival.

    If the arts are not to your taste, within a 20-minute drive from the capital you can find yourself alone on a barren
    hillside with a magnificent view of lochs and mountains, your only companions a few hardy sheep and some hoodie crows
    cawing and swaying in the wind.

    Tourism is important for the Scottish economy and is taken seriously. Every isolated hamlet in the Highlands
    offers accommodation for the traveler, while the larger towns provide more sophisticated facilities. The tourist office network
    allows you to book accommodation in advance. The employees are helpful and scrupulously honest.

    But even this did not stop a decline in tourism in Scotland in recent years. This generated a healthy debate on ways
    to try and rectify the situation. One initiative led to a powerful lobby persuading the US Congress to create an official
    annual "Tartan Day" in April with events held across the US, including a parade in New York. The first parade in 2001 was led
    by Sean Connery.

    The aim of this campaign was to raise awareness of Scotland as a place for tourism and business, tug the heartstrings
    of the 20 million or so Americans of Scottish descent and, at the same time, attract first-time visitors. This has not solved
    Scotland’s problems but at least efforts were made. Unfortunately there is no similar impetus or sense of urgency in Brazil.

    Welcome to Brazil—or Rather São Paulo

    Just getting to your destination here can be difficult if you are traveling outside São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. The
    Brazilian authorities do not make it easy to arrive at a convenient location and the tourist coming from abroad can only enter
    through a handful of airports. On a recent flight to Salvador I met an Englishwoman who had flown from Hawaii to Los Angeles
    and then onto São Paulo, from where she had to fly north again to reach her destination in Bahia.

    Although the airport at Salvador is described as being international, she still had to go through São Paulo. For
    Brazilians, a two-hour flight is short and a few extra hours in the air mean nothing but Europeans are not used to long distances. In
    Europe, a two-hour flight would take you from Paris to Aberdeen or Madrid to Geneva.

    It takes less time to get to Zurich from St Petersburg than it does to get to Manaus from Rio de Janeiro. Allowing
    more international flights to land in the Northeast, North and Midwest would be a good starting point.

    To Hell with the Tourist

    Arriving for the first time in any strange country is always a hassle but the lack of organization, which is the norm
    here, makes things worse. Most intercontinental flights arrive in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro around dawn, often at the same
    time. The result is that there are often long queues at immigration, customs and to change money.

    Every so often the customs decides to get tough and cracks down, causing longer delays. There are no official tourist
    stands with multi-lingual guides offering assistance. The tourist is left to his own devices or given assistance which, at times, is
    dubious. For example, the last time I entered Brazil on a Varig flight, a film was shown describing the formalities on landing and
    giving some practical information.

    However, the film made no mention of the fact that there was an excellent bus service between São Paulo’s
    international airport and the main hotels, city center and the domestic airport at Congonhas. It only referred to taxis, without stating
    that they were extremely expensive and that virtually none of the drivers spoke English. I am pretty sure this was a deliberate
    omission made for commercial reasons. To hell with the tourist seemed to be the attitude.

    As to taxis, again you are on your own. There is none of the efficient service you find in Washington, say, where
    staff call a taxi for you, explain that the fare is standard depending on the zone and wish you a nice day. São Paulo taxi
    drivers are generally honest but many first-time visitors must have a nervous ride, especially as the center is far away and the
    route passes favela shanty towns and a dingy, polluted industrial area.

    The view is nicer in Rio de Janeiro but the chances of being ripped off by a taxi driver there are much higher.
    Salvador has a spanking new airport, set in a beautiful location and a fleet of shiny taxis which are extremely expensive. It also
    has its share of conmen pretending to be taxi drivers but who are, in fact, moonlighting in their own on borrowed wrecks.
    They will tell you that their taxi is being repaired and their car is just a temporary one.

    I have actually traveled in this type of car because you can bargain the price down but I would not advise anyone to
    do so. In some places the taxis are fit only for the scrapheap. Once in Cuiabá, I found myself in a cab with a hole in the
    floor through which I could see the road. This may not sound like much to an experienced traveler but most tourists are on
    holiday and do not want "experiences" like this.

    Getting Around

    Getting around is not a big problem in Brazil, since there is an extensive air and road network. Flying is relatively
    efficient but expensive although some companies offer passes and a new budget airline, called Gol, has started up in recent years
    and proven highly successful. The railway system is thinly spread and geared to freight traffic.

    This is a terrible pity and one of the reasons why I sometimes wish the British, who were active railway builders
    everywhere they went, had been the colonial rulers here. There are a few passenger railway lines operating in some areas but,
    in general, they are of no use to the tourist. (The line from Curitiba to Paranaguá is one of the exceptions.)

    Renting a car is the best way of traveling around independently, but is expensive and you might find yourself getting
    conned by the rental agency. While Brazil has several reliable, large travel agencies, there are too many smaller outfits,
    especially in more remote areas, which see the foreigner as a source of rich pickings. If you do rent a car with the idea of a
    leisurely drive through exotic scenery then forget it.

    Driving in Brazil is rarely a pleasure, thanks to roads which are in poor condition and the fleets of trucks. These
    trucks are often poorly maintained and driven by maniacs who have never passed a driving test. The average car driver is also
    a bit of a maverick who does not believe in showing courtesy to other drivers or obeying traffic regulations.

    Traveling by bus is a better option but, once again, has drawbacks. Buses usually leave from stations located in
    awkwardly-situated places on the outskirts of towns and cities. You might be lucky and arrive at a quiet time but I have never been
    in a bus station which was not packed. The worse periods are at holiday time, such as Easter and Christmas, when the
    buses are full.

    Do not forget that millions of Brazilians live and work thousands of miles from their home areas, particularly
    Northeasterners in the south, and they often travel home. Buying a ticket and finding the bus stance can take ages. The chances of
    anyone speaking English are virtually non-existent and you might have to appeal to passers-by.

    Does Anyone Speak English?

    This lack of English speakers is another disadvantage and leaves Brazil behind most other places. This is
    understandable among the population as a whole, but is unacceptable in the tourist industry. A magazine recently ran an article about a
    top-class hotel which was sending some of its waiters on an English course.

    Since most of the hotel guests are foreign businessmen you would think that waiters in such a place would speak
    English but this is not the case. The magazine presented this initiative as though it were worthy of praise, instead of being an
    indictment of the complacency which is endemic in the travel and tourism industry here.

    During a recent stay in a beautiful complex near Salvador, one of the waitresses told me that she could earn a bit
    more if she learned English. However, it was obvious that she was not interested or inspired enough and had only learned a
    few numbers. With this attitude by management and staff alike, it will be a long time before the linguistic obstacle will be

    An English-speaking guide is, obviously, a big help but few travelers can afford such a luxury. For this reason it is
    essential to learn some Portuguese. Spanish is only of use in terms of the written language, where there are many similarities, but
    is useless as a means of verbal communication. Once again, this puts off most tourists.

    After all, if you can visit the Taj Mahal without having to learn Hindi, Hong Kong without learning Chinese and
    Bangkok without learning Thai, why go to Brazil? Most tourists are not interested in taking language lessons for a two-week
    holiday. Once again though, there is no sign that the Brazilian tourist authorities are taking any steps to ensure that English is
    given priority.

    For the young or more adventurous tourist many of these points are not important. In fact, most non-business tourists
    make their own arrangements and generally have a good time, as I have done myself on many occasions. But these tourists
    generally spend little and make no real contribution to the economy. If tourism is to match its potential richer tourists, particularly
    those with families, need to be encouraged and actively pursued.

    In closing I would like to stress that this article is not intended to be comprehensive. In anticipation of the usual
    "gringo, go home"-type messages from annoyed Brazilian readers, nor is it meant to be an attack on Brazil. Many other countries
    have faults and some are undoubtedly worse than Brazil.

    I have had experiences with taxi drivers in New York and Miami, which have been much worse than Brazil. I have
    been ripped off in several countries in Europe. I would also like to encourage more foreign tourists to come here for personal
    reasons since several people I know in Europe have resisted my invitations to visit because they have been put off by the bad publicity.

    * "São Paulo Weekend Attraction: Get Out Of Town?" Infobrazil –  – Nov 01 – 07, 2003


    John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who
    first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on
    politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—,  which specializes in
    editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at

    © John Fitzpatrick 2003

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