July sizzles for Brazilian visitors to Miami

Even though the Brazilian economy is cooling off, Brazilian visitors to South Florida are expected to set new records. July is a peak time for visits.

07/23/2012 5:00 AM

07/24/2012 11:21 AM

These may be the dog days of summer in South Florida, but for Brazilian visitors, July is prime time.

It’s winter vacation season south of the equator, and despite a slowing economy and a weakening currency in South America’s largest country, Brazilians’ appetite for South Florida visits hasn’t waned.

Everything from glamorous events to woo Brazilians to buy luxury condos to special shopping tours and cultural activities have been timed for July, the height of the Brazilian social season — in Miami.

Even Miami International Airport is unveiling Sem Fronteiras/Without Borders, its new Brazilian art exhibit, on Wednesday, and Vogue Brasil plans to bring out a special 66-page Miami issue at the end of the month.

“The Brazilians are coming in herds,’’ said Paulo Bacchi, co-owner of Artefacto, a high-end Brazilian furniture maker with two South Florida stores. He postponed both a designer showcase at his Coral Gables store and the champagne launch party for his new location in Aventura until this month to take full advantage of the Brazilian influx.

“July is officially vacation-in-Miami month,’’ he joked.

Just listen. There’s Brazilian Portuguese in the air — especially if you’re at a location that has anything to do with shopping.

And it’s not just the Brazilians who are speaking it. “ Brasil, Brasil! Oí, tudo bem? (Hi, everything good?),” yelled Johnny Deen, a salesman at Elegance Perfumes, as he spotted a group of Brazilian teenagers entering Sawgrass Mills mall.

With a broad sweep of his arms he beckoned them inside the small shop. “I know just enough Portuguese to sell,’’ said Deen. Soon a dozen teenagers, all clad in matching T-shirts from their tour group, were wafting perfume strips under each other’s noses, sniffing spritzes of perfume — and buying. There was good reason the sales people were so welcoming. Brazilians now account for about 40 percent of the store’s business.

At the nearby Rita Marianni store, leopard-print luggage and sky-high purple heels for $39 were attracting a crowd of young Brazilian shoppers.

Still, if you just looked at the latest economic indicators you might expect that tourism from Brazil would be running out of steam. Turmoil in Europe as well as slower Chinese demand for Brazil’s soybean and iron ore exports are taking a toll. Brazil’s currency, the real, has fallen from 1.57 reais to $1 last July to around 2 reais this season — eroding Brazilians’ purchasing power. And most estimates peg economic growth at a mere 2 to 2.5 percent this year.

“That news hasn’t arrived in the pockets of the Brazilians who are visiting here,’’ said Claudia Menezes, vice president of bus tour operator Pegasus Transportation, which ferries Brazilian shoppers to Sawgrass Mills, Bayside and the Aventura and Dolphin malls. “In both South Florida and Orlando we are still going with loads and loads of buses and extra buses to carry everything they buy.’’

Pegasus organized the bus tour that brought more than 100 teenagers from Belem, Brazil, to Sawgrass Mills for a five-hour shopping spree.

William Talbert III, president and chief executive of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he expected 2012 to be another record year for Brazilian travelers. Last year, more than 634,000 Brazilians visited and spent $1.345 billion, making Brazil Miami-Dade’s top international market.

There are several reasons why South Florida continues to be such a magnet for Brazilians:

•  More flights — Last summer, American Airlines had six daily flights from Brazil to Miami. This summer, the number is up to eight and it added service from a seventh Brazilian city, Manaus, on June 14. It also plans to split its Miami-Salvador-Recife route on Nov. 15 into two with service from each city five times a week and add a second daily flight between Miami and Rio de Janeiro in December.

“Overall Brazilian traffic is up significantly,’’ said Art Torno, American’s vice president for Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America. “This has been a great summer so far.’’

Low-cost Brazilian carrier GOL also began weekly charter flights to Miami on July 8, and hopes to begin offering five flights a week from Sao Paulo, via Caracas, pending U.S. Department of Transportation approval.

Brazil’s TAM, which recently merged with Chile’s LAN Airlines, also has plans to start using larger aircraft on its Sao Paulo-Miami and Manaus-Miami routes and has applied to increase the frequency of its flights between Brazil and Florida.

•  The price is right — Despite the weakening currency, the real is still relatively strong. Brazil also imposes high taxes on imports, making many of the brands Brazilians covet such as Apple, Louis Vuitton and Prada very expensive at home.

“The prices are much better here — maybe half what they would be in Brazil,’’ said Noenia Ecker, 15, who was among the teens on the shopping tour. Her game plan was to stock up on accessories and clothes, especially on favorite brands like Gap.

Brazilians spent more than $5,000 per visit in 2011 — almost twice as much as travelers from France and the United Kingdom, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

•  Real estate bargains — In recent years as defaults, oversupply and the economic crisis depressed the price of South Florida real estate, properties in Rio Janeiro and Sao Paulo were climbing to the loftiest levels ever. “Now Brazilian prices have plateaued but they’re not falling. Brazilian clients are saying they can get twice as much for their money here,’’ said Craig Studnicky, a principal at Related ISG, which markets and sells luxury condominiums. “It’s still the bargain of bargains despite the dollar strengthening against the real.’’

However, the enthusiasm of eight months ago when Brazilians could find luxury properties at $250 per square foot is somewhat tempered, said Philip Spiegelman, Studnicky’s partner. “Those prices are gone now, but the Brazilians still represent a healthy, dynamic market.’’

“Brazilians have swagger,’’ he said. And even if only 1 percent of Brazilians can now afford luxury waterfront, Spiegelman said, in a country with a population of more than 205 million “that 1 percent is a lot of people.’’

•  Easing of the visa logjam — It used to take more than 100 days for Brazilians to schedule an appointment at a U.S. consulate for an interview to get a travel visa. But the United States recently took steps to speed up visa processing and the wait for an appointment is down to one to two days. U.S. Travel says there has been a 58 percent increase in visa processing since last year.

And Talbert says real progress is being made toward a visa waiver program for Brazil that would eliminate the need for visas for trips to the United States.

Bacchi, meanwhile, said Brazilian customers who are furnishing their South Florida vacation homes with Artefacto furniture are still his stellar customers.

While he acknowledged the drooping real might be having some impact on travel decisions, he posited a caveat why it’s not affecting the clientele of Artefacto, where a leather sectional might run $10,000 to $20,000 or $4,000 in the more affordable “Basic” collectionc: “The rich are rich.’’

At one swanky Brazilian-oriented event last week more than 200 people turned out for a white party in Sunny Isles Beach to mark the Miami issue of Vogue Brasil and the launch of a Brazilian marketing effort for the Mansions at Acqualina, a luxury condominium project scheduled to break ground in August.

The project is already more than 60 percent sold, said Michael Goldstein, president of the venture. But while the Brazilians are in town, he wanted to give the tower an extra marketing push.

To woo buyers, the sales center includes a 4,600-square-foot model of a three-bedroom unit complete with a $100,000 closet, Fendi Casa furnishings, private elevator entrance, three terraces right on the beach, and a family room with gas fireplace. Party-goers spread out through every room of the model, even the large steam shower.

Vogue Brasil has printed 110,000 copies of its Portuguese-language Miami issue. “Miami is such a hot place, we plan at least two Miami issues a year,’’ said Alessandro Cremona, U.S. representative for the magazine.

But even less affluent Brazilians are big shoppers. The average shopping tab per Brazilian on a Pegasus Tour, Menezes said, is about $1,500. Even the teenagers for whom Disney World and Florida tours are a rite of passage come with long shopping lists from their families, she said.

“It’s power shopping,’’ said Jose Alberto Arguelles, a Pegasus employee who greeted the teenagers at Sawgrass Mills and handed out discount booklets.

Giovanna Barata, 15, was on her first trip to the United States but she knew exactly where she wanted to go when she got to the mall. “Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret,’’ she said. “I’m buying clothes, presents for my family and souvenirs for my friends.’’

She had budgeted about $400 to spend at Sawgrass but planned more shopping when the group reached Miami Beach.

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