International Business

Brazil hopes Olympics will pay future tourism dividends

Fans attend the men's gold medal basketball game between the United States and Serbia at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Of the 434,000 foreign visitors to Brazil during the Games, 17 percent were from the United States.
Fans attend the men's gold medal basketball game between the United States and Serbia at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Of the 434,000 foreign visitors to Brazil during the Games, 17 percent were from the United States. AP

The head of the Brazilian tourism board is feeling a sense of relief now that Rio de Janeiro's turn as host of the 2016 Summer Olympics is over, but now he’s got to start strategizing on how to translate the pop from the Games into a boost in future tourism.

“It's like when you throw a party at your house and there is a sigh of relief at the end” because worries about treating people well and making sure they had a good time are over, said Vinicius Lummertz, chief of Embratur, the tourism board.

But just a few days after Sunday's closing night extravaganza, “people in Rio were already saying we miss it. Being the center of the planet was a great sensation,” Lummertz said in a phone interview from the Olympic city.

Playing on the world stage was a big part of what the Rio Olympics were all about for Brazil, he said. Despite the country's political turmoil, economic downturn, security concerns, an ongoing corruption scandal, worries about crime, Zika and water pollution and even a fabricated tale by American swimmers about being the victims of an armed robbery, Lummertz said Brazil's 16-day Olympic party was a success.

“All of that turned out to be minor in the face of the success of the Games,” he said. He hopes the beautiful images of a city that sits between the sea and the mountains that were beamed around the world will be the “lasting impact” of the Rio Games.

All told, Brazil hosted 434,000 foreign visitors who spent about 2 billion reais ($617.24 million) during the Games. Some 700,000 Brazilians also were on hand in Rio to witness the first Olympic Games in South America. Americans were the top international visitors, accounting for 17 percent of foreign travelers.

Some visitors tacked extra days in Brazil after attending Olympic events. Brazil’s Ministry of Tourism says there were 541,000 international tourists in the country from July 1 to Aug. 15. That’s an increase of 157,000 tourists over the same period in 2015 — or a nearly 41 percent jump.

“We were surprised by the very favorable numbers,” Lummertz said. “What was reported before the Games about the risks of making the Games in Brazil was left behind.”

Despite Brazil’s ongoing financial problems and criticism that infrastructure improvements made for the Games did little to benefit the poor, Lummertz said the country is committed to hosting mega-events like the Olympicsto open Brazil and its economy to the world.

He pointed out that until Brazil’s return to democracy in the 1980s after two decades of military dictatorship, Brazil was very closed, following a strict economic policy of import substitution.

“Until the 1990s, trade only accounted for about 10 percent of Brazilian GNP,” he said. “We developed an internal economy, rather than an external economy.” But things are changing. Now international trade accounts for about 20 percent of the Brazilian economy, he said.

“We’ve come a long way with these large-scale events in showing Brazil to the world,” said Lummertz. Since 2007, Brazil has hosted the Pan American Games, a papal visit, Rio+20 — a huge sustainable development conference, the World Cup, and a number of other large sporting events. The next big event for Rio is the Sept. 7-18 Paralympic Games.

The events aren’t just about boosting the number of visitors, Lummertz said. “Our pitch is larger; it’s about attracting investment to Brazil and integrating our economy with the world. We want to showcase a new vision of the country.”

Despite its size and natural beauty, Brazil’s share of international tourism is relatively small. In 2015, there were 6.3 million foreign visitors to the largest country in South America and this year’s total may reach 6.5-6.6 million. In contrast, Greater Miami welcomed 15.5 million overnight visitors in 2015, including almost 748,000 Brazilians. Domestic visitors made up slightly more than half of the travelers to Miami-Dade County.

In the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index, Brazil ranked 28th, but it ranked tops in natural beauty and resources. Yet Brazil does little to promote its natural areas and parks. “We have a long way to go in this respect,” said Lummertz.

But perhaps Brazil’s biggest resource is its people. A Ministry of Tourism study released last week showed that Rio’s hospitality during the Games received a 98.7 approval rating from international tourists.

Just getting ready for this summer’s sporting events was a major challenge for Rio’s tourism sector.

Not only did its airports need updating and the transportation system a major overhaul, but there was a deficit of hotel rooms when Rio won its Olympic bid. Since 2009, Lummertz said, Rio more than doubled the number of hotel rooms in the city to 60,000.

“The hotels were packed in Rio; there was no place else for people to stay,” he said. About 100,000 travelers ended up booking home stays through Airbnb and other travel sites.

Brazil budgeted $3 billion to prepare for the Games, but probably spent at least $4.6 billion, according to a University of Oxford analysis. Expenditures on extending the Rio subway and building a bus rapid transit (BRT) system that crosses the city benefited the Olympics but weren’t considered part of Games expenditures.

“These were things that would have had to be done anyway and the Olympics advanced them by 20 years,” said Lummertz.

Now the challenge is to keep the momentum and interest in Rio and Brazil going, said Lummertz. Brazilian tourism officials see Barcelona, which has tripled its visitors since hosting the 1992 Summer Games, as a model. South Florida’s experience with Art Basel, which has put it on the map as an artistic and cultural destination, also is an inspiration for Brazilian tourism officials. They hope to promote the country’s cultural diversity and new art spaces and museums in Rio.

“The transformation of Rio is very significant for Brazil in general,” Lummertz said. “ We are planning international media campaigns and pitching more international events, and we’ll also be promoting more investment. Brazil is opening up.”