For Brazil, World Cup success fuels hope for more tourists at Rio Olympics

During the World Cup, more than 1 million international visitors flocked to Brazil — far exceeding pre-tournament expectations.

That wasn’t the only thing topsy-turvy about the world’s biggest sporting event. The Brazilian soccer team was a pre-Cup favorite and many expected Brazil would flub at organizing the June 15-July 15 event. Instead, Brazil was routed in the semifinals and got high marks for its hosting efforts.

Now it hopes to take some of the lessons it learned from organizing a successful World Cup as it barrels full-speed ahead in preparing for its next mega sporting event: the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Its first big online advertising campaign for the Olympics kicks off next month and will run until just before the August 5-21, 2016, event, said Vicente de Lima Neto, president of the Brazilian Tourism Board (Embratur), in an interview with the Miami Herald. He is in town this week for the Brazilian Film Festival of Miami.

Brazil had hoped for a tourism pop during the World Cup, expecting 600,000 international visitors and 3 million Brazilians to attend matches and World Cup-related events in 12 host cities.

But during the Cup, there were 3.1 million Brazilians circulating around the country for soccer events and 1.035 million foreign visitors from 203 countries, Neto said. That will push the total of international tourists visiting Brazil this year to 7 million — a 1 million increase over 2013, he said.

Sixty-one percent of international visitors surveyed during the World Cup were experiencing Brazil for the first time. According to a Ministry of Tourism survey, 95 percent said they hoped to return.

Organizers also had predicted the economic impact of the World Cup at $6.7 billion. Instead, said Neto, it was $7.5 billion.

And Brazil wasn’t the only place that got a boost from World Cup travelers. So did Miami International Airport, which has service to 11 Brazilian cities and counts Brazil as its top international market.

The airport reported that the number of passengers traveling between MIA and Brazil in June increased 16 percent to more than 178,000 compared to June 2013. During July — traditionally a peak travel month for Brazilians coming to Miami — Brazil-MIA traffic was up 6.9 percent, increasing to 187,852 passengers.

That contrasts with MIA’s overall international traffic, which was flat during the first half of the year.

MIA also is expected to benefit from Olympic travel.

“The worldwide exposure MIA gains as the Gateway to Brazil is priceless” during global events, said Greg Chin, MIA communications director. “We expect to see a similar spike in traffic between MIA and Brazil for the 2016 Olympics, within the context of the Olympics covering 16 days while the World Cup was 31 days.”

Surprising to the Brazilians was the American fervor for soccer. After Brazilians, Americans bought more World Cup tickets than any other nationality, they were the top spenders and they stayed in the country 15 days — two days longer than the average foreign visitor.

As a result, Neto said, Brazil is going to direct more of its promotional efforts to the North American market. For a Sept. 26 event to promote Rock in Rio, which will be held in Las Vegas next year, it will hold two Times Square concerts and has bought all the electronic billboards at the venue for the evening.

Embratur hopes to use Rock in Rio and other cultural events to promote the Olympics as well.

Embratur’s “Brasil Sensacional” Olympic ad campaign will emphasize the warmth and hospitality of the Brazilian people, an asset that was driven home in World Cup tourism surveys. Ninety-eight percent of World Cup visitors surveyed said they approved of Brazilian hospitality and 93 percent liked the food.

German visitors were impressed with how willing Brazilians were to share their tables and beer, and on the survey some French travelers remarked on how much Brazilians hugged.

“The ideas of warmth and sharing showed up very strongly in the surveys and they will be the focus of our new campaign,” Neto said. “The message will be ‘Live like one of us.’”

To promote the Olympics, Brazil also is planning a series of road shows that will feature Brazilian athletes.

Hosting big sporting events is part of the country’s long-term development strategy to burnish its image, attract more visitors and jump-start long stalled projects to improve the country’s roads, ports and airports.

Neto said Brazil was not only pleased with the tourism exposure it got during the Cup, but also the chance it had to showcase business opportunities.

There were 870 business meetings and conferences that coincided with World-Cup month, resulting in an estimated $3 billion worth of business, Neto said. “We used the Cup to get Brazil’s image out there and sell more products,” he said.

While there have been criticism that several of the new soccer palaces built for World Cup action will become white elephants, there are plans to use them for future sporting events, Neto said.

Brazil, for example, will be hosting the 2015 World Indigenous Games, featuring events such as spear tossing and archery, as well as the 2019 University Games in Brasilia.

And, Neto said, there are plans to hold some preliminary Olympic soccer matches in Brasilia, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Recife, and Salvador and to schedule some swimming heats outside Rio as well.

In addition, Neto said that next year Brazil will ask for bids from its cities that want to host visiting Olympic delegations and provide training facilities. That could also spread the economic impact of the Games outside Rio.

Earlier this month as the two-year countdown to the Summer Games began, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes promised that his city will offer the “greatest legacy ever from an Olympics.”

But before the World Cup, there was international criticism about Rio’s preparations for the Olympics, especially its decision to hold the sailing events in polluted Guanabara Bay where floating debris — even animal carcasses and cast-off furniture at times — can be a hazard.

Organizing officials had acknowledged that the sailing venue might have to be changed, but Neto said the sailing events will remain in the bay. At the beginning of the month, the first major test regatta for Olympic and Paralympic sailing was held and it went more smoothly than many had been anticipating.

Eco-barriers and eco-boats to pick up floating debris will be used, and a containment belt will surround the sailing course during the Olympics. Efforts to improve water quality also will continue.

Brazil, which currently has about 400,000 hotel rooms, also is in the process of upgrading its lodging, said Neto. Some 70 new hotel projects are slated to be finished by the end of this year, and by 2016, there are expected to be more than 400 new hotels.

As Brazil looks forward to the Olympics, it has even bigger tourism goals. By 2020, it would like to welcome 10 million visitors annually, Neto said.