Florida is overwhelming choice of Brazilian visitors

South Florida residents are accustomed to hearing Portuguese accents as Brazilian visitors flock to stores and tourist attractions, but they may not be aware of just how popular the Sunshine State is in Brazil.

Mauro Vieira, Brazil’s ambassador to the United States, said Friday that new figures show that of the 1.8 million Brazilians who traveled abroad in 2012, 75 percent came to Florida.

“Florida is a very important state for Brazil,’’ said Vieira, who was a speaker at the 8th Annual Latin American Symposium, which is organized by the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy.

Speakers at the day-long event, which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel Miami, addressed everything from the changing political landscape in Latin America and the need for economic reforms to trade and political issues that are driving the U.S.-Latin American relationship. Juan Carlos Pinzón, Colombia’s Minister of Defense, also discussed his country’s strategy for lowering violence levels associated with drug trafficking, guerrilla movements and organized crime.

Brazil, meanwhile, is Florida’s top trading partner with $19.6 billion in trade last year and the second largest source of international visitors. Canada is still tops. But in Miami-Dade County, Brazilians have dethroned Canadians as the top international visitors.

Visa-free travel between the United State and Brazil is a top priority for the U.S. travel industry and for Bill Talbert, president and chief executive of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, in particular.

Talbert has become a tireless advocate for a visa waiver program that would allow Brazilians to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.

A working group to study elimination of visa requirements between the two countries met for the first time last November.

But Vieira said, “This is a very, very long negotiation. It is not an easy one.”

He said the first step in the process of getting a visa waiver program may be setting up a Global Entry program between the two countries.

Under the U.S. Global Entry program, pre-approved, low-risk travelers, who are U.S. citizens or legal residents, get expedited processing through Customs when they enter the United States. They pay a fee of $100 every five years.

The ambassador said a similar program would have to be set up in Brazil, and then pre-approved travelers from both countries could take part in a reciprocal program.

A visa waiver program would have to be approved by the Brazilian Congress and “will take longer,’’ said Vieira. “It is a work of patience.”

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