Paradise still unexplored

January 30, 2010

Rio in the Twilight Zone

Brazil is still very far from fulfilling its touristic potential. Despite its 7,500 kilometers (4,300 miles) of coast, the Amazon rainforest, the Iguaçú Falls and the cultural riches, the country attracts less attention than it deserves. Last year, only 6.5 million tourists landed in the country. It is huge, if you remember that this number was a meager 1.5 million in 1990. On the other hand, it is nothing if you compare it to the tourism influx of Spain, a particularly coveted destination but also a much smaller country. Spain attracted 52 million foreigners last year – lower than its average, thanks to the global crisis.

According to the Brazilian Tourism Ministry, last year 5.3 billion dollars were spent by foreign tourists in Brazil. This industry is responsible for at least 2 million jobs, a number that could triple if we include informal jobs plus bars and restaurants. Again, this may look good, but note that Brazilian tourists spent 10.89 billion dollars abroad in 2010. So, we are better exporters than importers of tourism.

There are several reasons that might explain the relative lack of interest for Brazilian attractions. First, the fact that Brazil is seen as a dangerous destination (the drug business, kidnappings and other sorts of crimes are broadly covered by the international media). Secondly, for many decades the Brazilian government made a very poor job in advertising the country beauties. Most of the material distributed abroad in the 70s and 80s would display naked ladies by the beach or dancing during Carnival. This stimulated sexual tourism and, somehow, may have scared families and conservative travelers. Embratur, the federal agency responsible for the promotion of tourism, progressed considerably in this department. Then, you have the chronic problem of lack of infrastructure (almost no railway system, roads that are not always in good shape) and of professionals poorly trained to offer a good service in hotels and restaurants. Also, here, there was considerable improvement in the last decades.

Bodies still star Riotur's ads

Embratur ad, 2009

In December, the Brazilian government announced its Plano Aquarela 2020 (Plan Watercolor 2020) that aims to double the number of foreign visitors in the next ten years. The 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, that will be hosted by the country, should be instrumental to reach this target.

Also in December, the government published the results of a yearly poll made with foreign tourists interviewed in airports. It tries to detects how the country’s image is evolving. According to the 2009 poll:

  • 45% of the interviewees said the the population is the best attraction factor of Brazil, 23% mentioned the natural beauties, 18% prefered the beaches and the ocean, 14% chose the weather and 9% the diversity.
  • 68% considered the quality of the products and services offered high or very high.
  • 63% used the internet as their main source of information to organize the trip

All in all, Brazil seems to be well positioned to, finally, attract a larger number of visitors and boost an industry that can grow considerably.



  1. you wonder why not more tourists come here? the country is not really set up for tourists. the people make it amazing but the communication skills is on both sides, minimal.
    its not that its not appreciated but its difficult to take time out for vacation anyway and when one hears that there are difficulties than we veer to another country less isolating. its grandeur is what is both its strength and weakness: very big, one out of every 20? people MIGHT speak a little language other than portuguese…inform your tourists the truth so if they really want to enjoy they take a portuguese class before coming.

    • Yes, I agree this is a big part of the problem – common in most countries that are not in the immediate sphere of the US or England. When I mentioned the lack of training of tourism professionals, I was also referring to language skills.

  2. I live here in Brazil and from a favela. We learn english here too. Why the tourism agents do not hire us? We have many smart people here in Rocinha!


  3. Dear Regina,

    I think safety or the perception of lack of safety in Brazil still is the main factor the prevents further growth in the Tourism industry.
    In my opinion infra-structure, training and other contributing factors will come into place quickly and naturally when the demand for tourists is present.
    Brazil should focus in the basics right now, making their cities safer and then selling a new clean image of safety well marketed around the world.


    • I tend to agree, Ray. Now, even if the country becomes safer, it will take a while to change its international image. Let’s keep in mind that Brazil has been portrayed as a crime paradise since the forties – I lost track of how many Hollywood movies show criminals dreaming of a refuge in Rio. I think this will be a long, very long process.
      And, Ray, thanks for being so present around here. I really appreciate it. This is a new project and your support is welcome.

  4. Brazil would do well to ease its visa requirements instead of playing tit-for-tat with the USA. I am a retired American who, having a home in Rio, would spend a lot more time and money in Brazil if I were given a visa for a longer stay or, even better, were allowed to stay without a visa.

    The only work I do in Brazil is what I expend keeping up my 0.73 hectare property. Not only do I not “take a job” from a Brazilian, I spend a lot of money employing caretakers, landscapers, painters and stonemasons there. The USA can scarcely afford its restrictive visa policy that keeps academics, inventors, scientists and engineers out. Brazil even less so.

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