The Washington Times / June 25, 1996
By Larry Luxner
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- If Rio's hoteliers have their way, the city now known throughout the world for sun, sex and samba will soon be remade into South America's culture and sports capital -- a transformation crowned by nothing less than the 2004 Summer Olympics.
"Rio cannot compete as a resort anymore. A city of 10 million people cannot be a resort," said Alb„o Bezerra de Mello, president of Rio's influential Tourist Hotel Association. "We have to resell the city's image. People already know about Sugarloaf Mountain, the beaches and the mulattas. What they don't know is that we have more than 60 museums. We think Rio can be a very important center of a new kind of tourism, and a big center for sports events."
Others disagree, however. One Brazilian tour operator living in Miami said scrapping Rio's time-honored image of Carnaval and girls strolling along Copacabana Beach in "dental-floss" bikinis would be unrealistic and counter-productive. "A few museums does not culture make," said the travel specialist who asked not to be identified, adding that "if want tourists really want to see is culture, they can go to Paris or Madrid."
Fueling the controversy over Rio's future is a precipitious drop in tourist arrivals ever since an epidemic of violent street crime swept through the metropolis, tarnishing its image worldwide. At one time, nearly all visitors coming to Brazil came through Rio. Now, according to hoteliers, that number is down to 46%.
City fathers are hoping that a plan to lure the 2004 Summer Olympics to Rio will give the metropolitan area a badly needed boost. The fact that the event is also being sought by Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Rome and half a dozen other cities doesn't seem to bother them, especially since Rio recently won strong words of praise from the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which is coordinating private-sector initiatives for the 1996 Olympics and wants to foster Atlanta-Rio business ties. While the 10-member delegation visiting Brazil last October stopped short of publicly endorsing Rio as the site for the 2004 Olympics, current circumstances do give local politicians cause for optimism.
"We think the next winner must come from Latin America," declared Jorge Pedro Dalledonne, secretary-general of the Rio 2004 Bid Committee, pointing out that Sydney has already been awarded the 2000 Games and that South America has never had an Olympics. "We are very sympathetic to Buenos Aires and San Juan, but the general understanding is that Buenos Aires is too cold in winter, and that San Juan is perceived as a U.S. city, and that's a handicap."
Adds Pedro de Castro Cunha e Menezes, the committee's international director: "Rio hosted 126 heads of state at the 1992 Earth Summit, and we didn't have any problems. We're very confident that, if the decision were to be made strictly on technical terms, we would win."
Not willing to take chances, the committee -- which occupies half of the fifth floor of one of Rio's swankiest office buildings -- has 50 people working full-time on the city's Olympic bid, and has already spent close to $5 million of its $16 million budget. But that's nothing compared to the $1.3 billion being invested in infrastructure projects -- including everything from a doubling of capacity at Rio's international airport to an upgrading of the city's aging telecommunications grid.There's even talk of privatizing the Maracan„ stadium -- the world's largest soccer stadium, built for the 1950 World Cup -- with seats for more than 100,000 spectators.
The fact that a Brazilian heads FIFA, the world soccer federation, certainly doesn't hurt Rio's chances of hosting the Olympics. Nor does intense lobbying by soccer star Pele, now Brazil's minister of sports and recreation.
Yet Rio, for all its natural beauty, can't seem to shake its association with crime and violence. And a number of tourists conclude that, apart from the glittering Copacabana and Ipanema hotel strip, the city of 6.5 million is downright shabby. Like all Brazilian cities, miserable favelas ring the metropolitan area, traffic chokes nearly all main arteries and garbage litters the streets. How much the city is improving is quite debatable.
"For three years we suffered because of the bad publicity Rio received," says Alvaro Rodriguez, general manager of the 437-room Rio Inter-Continental. "There was a lot of truth to it. But then the government took corrective action, increased the size of the police force and campaigned for safety, and crime has been reduced tremendously. Three years ago, we received two or three tourist complaints a week. Now we don't hear of any."
To counter the negative publicity, New York ad agency Jerry & Ketchum recently launched a $15 million contract to promote Rio to U.S. tourists. The five-year multimedia campaign is funded by a consortium made up of the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau, the office of the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, the state tourism agency and Varig Brazilian Airlines.
"We believe there's an excellent opportunity in Rio, in its beauty, glamour, music and people, to create new excitement for one of South America's most important cities," declared Jim Tenny, executive vice-president for Jerry & Ketchum.
"In 1995, we had 120,000 U.S. tourists who stayed an average of four nights and spent $155 a day," said Julio Mendes Gavinho, marketing director at the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau. "What we want is for these people to stay in Rio for six nights, spending $180 a day, and to increase the number of visitors to 500,000 in three years."
Gavinho adds ruefully that "if we had made nice publicity for the last 10 years, we wouldn't have a problem today."
Indeed, what's making news these days isn't crime against gringos but the "corrective action" itself. Earlier this spring, a leading human-rights group charged Rio de Janeiro police with violating the fundamental rights of criminal suspects, killing and torturing detainees during a 1995 crackdown. The New York-based Human Rights Watch/Americas, in a 30-page report, documented widespread abuses by Rio police including two massacres in which 27 people lost their lives. The so-called Operation Rio, which lasted from November 1994 to mid-1995, came in response to mounting pressure from politicians, civic leaders, the tourist industry and news media.
"The approach of the Rio de Janeiro authorities in their attack on drug trafficking and criminality is misguided and dangerous," charged Jose Miguel Vivanco, the group's executive director. "Under no circumstances can officials tolerate human-rights violations in the name of fighting crime."