When I was being interviewed on Canadian national news the other week, one of the questions I was asked was whether Rio would suffer a PR disaster as a result of the multiple building collapse which killed at least 17 people in downtown Rio.
At that point, my thoughts were mainly that Rio could probably manage to shrug this off before the sporting mega-events – the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics – make it to Brazil. There’s a long time to go, right?
But now more bad news, and for Brazil’s tourism industry, the last few weeks have been the most challenging for years.
In the Bahia state capital, Salvador, a violent stand-off between police officers on strike over pay and conditions, and the army soldiers brought in to replace them, brought chaos to the streets of the city and the wider state, and more worryingly a doubling of the number of murder victims.
It was another piece of bad news Brazil didn’t want plastered around the world’s press, coming just two weeks after the buildings collapse. It raised questions about Brazil’s poor infrastructure and its ability to welcome visitors – let alone holding the sporting mega-events it is hosting in the coming years.
And now there could be worse to come.
Last night 14,000 army troops took to the streets of Rio as the city’s civil and military police went on strike, along with the fire service, over pay and conditions. For Brazil’s most-visited city, the timing couldn’t be worse: next week sees the start of the one event of the year that lures more tourists to Brazil than any other – Carnaval.
Despite reassuring words from Rio’s officials that everything is under control and that “security at Carnaval is guaranteed”, they are anxious. They do not want a repeat of this week’s events in Bahia while nearly five million visitors descend on the city.
The event is undoubtedly the biggest in Rio’s calendar and in Brazil’s shop window – and each year it paralyses the country with its energy, colour and samba vibes. Images of the festival, traditionally held the four days preceding Ash Wednesday, are paraded around the world as the country’s biggest piece of bait for international tourists.
Last year’s Carnaval attracted 4.9 million people to the Cidade Maravilhosa (“Marvellous City”, as the locals call Rio), according to the City Hall, including 400,000 foreigners – generating around R$1.2 billion – around US$740 million – and it’s big business for Brazil’s other cities, too.
The country’s increased presence in the world’s media – including in a number of movies, such as last year’s blockbuster animation Rio – and its ever more confident position on the world political stage all mean the world has never felt closer to Brazil.
And Brazil is investing a lot of money into making sure they still come, whatever the headlines say.
The result is that the country’s tourism industry is thriving; the fact that Brazil’s expanding middle class now have more money in their pockets means Brazil’s fledgling domestic industry is taking off in tandem with its international one.
Industry experts say this is leading to better standards across the board – and a world-class experience for tourists.
And although question marks still hang over parts of the country’s infrastructure, major improvements have been made in terms of security – particularly with Rio’s ongoing reclaiming of the remaining lawless, gang-ruled favelas, a process known as pacificação in Portuguese – mean few travellers have been put off, and most face their trip to Brazil with a sense of adventure.
And it’s this mentality, something that seems to be shared by a lot of tourists coming to Brazil, which keeps the crowds coming, and in growing numbers.
Travellers coming to Brazil are generally aware of what they’re letting themselves in for – and the country’s beaches, food, culture and general energy nearly always manage to trump any stories of Rio’s pickpockets or queues at the airports.
Of the estimated five million foreign visitors who came to Brazil last year, Argentina and the US top the list, but a growing number are coming from Europe – particularly from Spain, Italy, Germany, France and the UK – as Brazil becomes more and more accessible to global markets.