Brazil Tourism Lagging Behind

Brazil has everything a tourist could possibly want. History, culture, outstanding nature, thousands of wonderful beaches and islands, fantastic food, a welcoming attitude, and that feeling of exoticism and adventure – coupled with “easy access tourism” – that is surely practically unrivalled in the world.

I was first a tourist in Brazil in 2011 when I visited Rio, Curitiba and the Iguaçu Falls.

However, recent figures released by the country’s Ministry of Tourism show that, although 2011 had record figures – 5.4 million foreign tourists a year – a big proportion of these are simple visits from Argentina and neighbouring countries, rather than visitors from the US or Europe, of which there were relatively few.

Mexico had 22.4 million tourists last year – and, yes, inevitably many of those will have been from the US, it’s still a staggering figure – which makes Mexico tenth best globally for tourism.

Brazil really does have a lot to offer – and it’s pretty bewildering that it isn’t doing better, despite occasionally spikes in the figures, like for Carnaval in February.

But even though the Brazilian real (R$) is currently sliding against the dollar and the pound and you’re getting a lot of bang to your buck, perhaps one reason is that it is difficult to do Brazil on a shoestring. Other places in South America – Argentina included – are relatively cheap to visit and travel around once you’ve made it to the country.

In Brazil, this is not the case. Accommodation is often pricey; local and inter-city transport – be it by bus or plane (notice no train option available) is expensive – particularly if you’re used to the prices in Ecuador or Peru, for example; and going out is definitely going to put a dent in your wallet.

Places in Brazil are simply a long way apart – and you have to do some domestic travelling if you want to see more than just Rio. Even from Rio to São Paulo you’re going to need a six-hour bus ride, let alone if you want to visit Salvador, Foz do Iguaçu, the Pantanal or the Amazon – where plane is the only viable option.

The Iguaçu Falls, in Brazil’s southern state of Paraná, attract hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Many people visit South America thinking – okay, the flight’s expensive, but the rest will be cheap. Brazil doesn’t offer that, really – and this is perhaps why, particularly when talking to backpackers in Ecuador, they said that Brazil would have to wait – and that this time it would be Bolivia and Peru, perhaps Chile… maybe Argentina if it’s a big trip, and then back home.

Although there are huge distances involved, you’re getting another country – another experience – to tick off the list, and often it’s cheap that crossing Brazil on a domestic flight.

One problem often citing is a bit misleading – and I don’t think the fact that Brazil’s airport infrastructure is pretty much unprepared for mass tourism has really made a big difference, despite FIFA’s accusations and concerns over Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup in 2014. I’m not sure people really think about that when they’re planning a trip here. Airports are an inevitable evil wherever you travel.

This year’s Rio+20 conference will be a good “dummy run” to test to see if Rio’s airports and other infrastructure can cope, before the onslaught of tourists in 2014 for the World Cup and two years later for the Olympics.

Perhaps these two major sporting events are what’s needed to get Brazil’s tourism to the level it should really be at. Although there is the risk that, if Brazil blows it, it could knock it back further. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.

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