Economic growth in Brazil is sluggish, inflation is stubbornly high, the real has sunk against the dollar and social unrest has roiled the country in recent weeks.
That’s not exactly a confluence of events that should bring a smile to South Florida tourism officials this July — a time when Brazilians, who spent a record $1.5 billion in Miami-Dade County last year — typically flock to South Florida.
The Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo recently did a survey of travel agencies and found that a 13-day package tour to Orlando and Miami, which cost around $4,000 at the beginning of March, was16 percent more in late June, pushing the price of a Florida vacation to its highest level in more than four years. But the Brazilians keep coming. Although mid-year international visitor numbers for Dade won’t be available for another month, tourism officials say this is shaping up to be another bang-up year for Brazilian visitors.
The flights from Brazil are full, and Brazilians still seem to be buying up a storm on foreign trips despite the 11.4 percent slide of the real to 2.25 to the dollar since last year. In May, Brazilians spent $2.2 billion abroad, the most since the Central Bank began keeping such records in 1969.
This July there are 112 weekly flights from Miami International Airport to Brazil, compared to 91 flights last summer. Brazil is by far the airport’s top international market, and MIA serves seven Brazilian cities — more than any other U.S. airport, said Greg Chin, airport communications director.
American Airlines flies to all seven cities and offers 11 daily flights — two more than last year — from Miami to Brazil. Another flight has been added to São Paulo, bringing daily service to four flights, and an extra flight has been added to Rio de Janeiro. American also offers service to Brasilia, Manaus, Recife, Salvador and Belo Horizonte.
“This speaks to the demand for Miami. Many of these flights are sold out — at premium pricing,’’ said Rolando Aedo, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Despite what’s going on with the economy, Brazil is richer than it was five years ago,’’ said Brazilian Paulo Bacchi as he lounged on a white leather sofa at his Artefacto furniture store as a party swirled around him.
About 1,000 people packed the store at the Village of Merrick Park for the launch of Design House, Bacchi’s invitation-only annual showcase for designers. He always times the event for July to get maximum exposure among Brazilian jetsetters who are in town. Although Bacchi concedes that “Miami isn’t a bargain anymore,’’ he added, “It’s still cheaper than Brazil. The prices are a third of what they are in Brazil.’’
Cascading taxes and restrictions on imports push the price of the smart phones, tablet computers, designer purses, sneakers and name-brand clothing that Brazilians covet to sky-high levels at home. Even the price of a cheese pizza in São Paulo is $30, laments Neneto Camargo, a São Paulo executive who is buying a condominium on the 25th floor of One Thousand Museum Tower in downtown Miami. “In Miami, you pay $10 or $12 for that pizza.’’ And he added, it’s still cheaper to fly from São Paulo to Miami than from São Paulo to Recife, a port city in Brazil’s Northeast.
“We do track currency fluctuations, but despite the weaker real, the value proposition of getting on a plane and coming to Miami is still a much, much better deal than buying in their own backyard,’’ said Aedo.
After a series of boom years, the Brazilian economy grew just .9 percent last year, and this year the Central Bank is predicting economic growth of 2.7 percent — a figure private economists find optimistic. More worrisome is the inflation forecast: 6 percent.
“It’s true there is an economic slowdown, but it’s all in relative terms,’’ Aedo said.
Five years ago, he said, there were just 460,000 Brazilian visitors. Last year, a record 690,000 Brazilians visited — 12 percent more than the year before.
“We don’t expect double-digit growth every year, but we still expect growth. We anticipate we’ll have quite a significant increase in Brazilians,’’ Aedo said. “There are still overwhelming positive factors that are drawing them in.’’
• No more visa logjam. It used to take more than three months to get a visa interview appointment at a U.S. consulate in Brazil for a visit to the United States. But in April 2012, the U.S. announced a $40 million program to double consular staff, streamline visa processing and improve its consular facilities. Recently, the wait time for interviews was down to two days in São Paulo, one day in Brasilia and 14 days in Rio de Janeiro. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand for travel to the United States,’’ said Aedo. “Now the pipeline has opened up dramatically.’’
• Millions of Brazilians have moved into the middleclass in recent years. Members of the new middle class have had “coming to the United States and Miami on vacation at the top of their list for a long time,’’ Aedo said.
• Miami’s growing reputation as a luxury destination. “The consolidation of wealth continues, not just in Brazil but across the world,’’ Aedo said. “Whether it’s Gucci bags or premium destinations like Miami, this trend toward luxury travel and luxury brands continues.’’
It’s the high-income Brazilians who have Miami retailers and real estate brokers salivating. To attract them, Bacchi added a second July soiree, a partnership with Neiman Marcus Coral Gables at his Aventura showroom. More than 1,000 guests sipped champagne as models walked a runway to display the upscale retailer’s pre-fall collections.
Neiman Marcus also took part in a party thrown by Vogue Brasil to promote the magazine’s second annual Portuguese-language Miami issue. At the events, Neiman Marcus handed out cards that could be brought into the store for shopping incentives and the chance to win a shopping spree. “We’re very focused on getting Brazilians into our store,’’ said Katharine Rubino, a Neiman Marcus public relations manager. “July is the peak, but we’ve really started to see tourism year-round.”
Models also rocked Brazilian bikinis during Swim Week, and other luxury retailers and condominium developers held parties this month to showcase their offerings to the Brazilians.
Bacchi said about one-third of the customers buying Artefacto furniture are Brazilian. Even though Miami condos aren’t selling at the bargain prices of a few years ago, he said the market is stable and there are still plenty of Latin American buyers looking for property. Business is so good, he said, that he is planning to open a third store in Doral in August.
“We are now seeing what I would call a permanent second-home market,’’ he said rather than just an investment opportunity. Brazilians who bought vacation homes here, Bacchi said, are now trading up.
That’s the case of Camargo, whose company owns FM radio stations and magazines in Brazil. Twelve years ago, he bought a condo on Key Biscayne but he expects to close soon on his new property at One Thousand Museum for around $5 million. When it’s finished, he’ll be in the market for an interior designer and new furniture.
Debora Aguiar, a São Paulo architect whose firm works on such high-profile projects as the interior of the athletes’ village for the 2016 Rio Olympics, said she has picked up so much design work in South Florida that she plans to open an office in South Beach in November.
There’s one more intangible that is expected to keep fueling the Brazilian stampede to Miami: Brazilians just like South Florida.
In a phone interview from São Paulo, Camargo ticked off all the things he enjoys: “good museums, Brazilians like sunshine — I think you have sunshine 300 days a year, nice beaches, good basketball team — three-time champions, the best restaurants — now you can come and stay 10 or 15 days and you don’t have to repeat restaurants, better security — everything is better.’’
And one more selling point for him is that “in Miami they speak Portuguese at all the nice stores. You go to Bal Harbour and you don’t find a store without at least one attendant who speaks Portuguese.’’