By Larry Luxner
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s No. 1 tourist attraction, is working hard to spruce up its image in time for the millennium. Last year, the city was visited by 1.45 million tourists; the projection for this year is 1.8 million to two million. That’s according to Gérard Bourgeaiseau, tourism secretary for Rio’s municipal tourist agency, Riotur.
In a recent interview, Bourgeaiseau — who oversees 220 employees and a $10 million annual promotion budget — says his mission is “to change the image of the city abroad, and to show the diversity of Rio.” He notes that Argentines are still the leading source of foreign tourists, followed by Western Europeans (mainly Germans and Italians), then Americans.
In 1997, just over 106,000 U.S. tourists visited Rio, up from 98,000 the year be-fore. Last year, the average tourist spent $68 a day (excluding hotels) and ranked Rio’s beaches — Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon — as the city’s top draw. In second place were Corcovado and Pão de Açucar, followed by cultural attractions, the Botanical Gardens and the 110,000-seat Maracanã soccer stadium, which is now the focus of a $60 million renovation.
“We have improved many districts throughout Rio,” Bourgeaiseau said. “In the south part of the city, we’ve worked to avoid floods by improving sewage. Also, many telephone and electric wires are going underground. All these changes are to make the city better for its citizens. And what you do for the citizens is good for tourism as well.”
Bourgeaiseau says that last year, $78 million was invested in refurbishing existing hotels, though he says “we need new hotels. In Copacabana, Marriott will open a 320-room hotel by November 2000, and there’s another project by Brazilian investors involving a 350-room, five-star hotel.”
One of Rio’s largest properties, the National Hotel next to the Inter-Continental, remains vacant. “The National went bankrupt due to bad management by the family that owned it,” he says. “It’s in court now, and will take years to resolve.”
Caesar Park isn’t the only luxury hotel chain hoping to raise its profile in Brazil. Inter-Continental, Marriott, Sheraton, Hilton and Hyatt have their own expansion plans, as do mid-priced chains like Quality Inn and Sleep Inn, which see a market for budget-priced accommodations in a country where decent, affordable lodging is hard to find — especially in secondary cities like Belo Horizonte or Pôrto Alegre.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s cheaper real, while making it prohibitively expensive for most locals to travel abroad, has done wonders for the São Paulo convention business. Eduardo Sanovicz, operations director at the São Paulo Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that in 1998, the city hosted 248 conventions and congresses.
“So far in 1999, we’ve had 360, and I think by year’s end, we’ll reach 400,” he says. “This number excludes trade fairs and small events below 300 attendees. If you include the small ones, the number goes up to 45,000.”
Yet Sanovicz says that São Paulo tourism revenues, which came to around $3 billion last year, will grow only slightly in 1999. “International arrivals increased this year, but the Brazilian domestic market is depressed. So I’m not so optimistic about the final figures.”
Sanovicz says the goal of the C&VB, which has 106 hotels and other associated members, “is to promote São Paulo as a destination for meetings, conventions and tourism, and to develop services.”
While São Paulo can’t hope to compete with Rio for beauty, it does have other charms: 6 convention centers and 16,000 hotel rooms (including 6,000 rooms in São Paulo’s 17 five-star hotels); 12,000 restaurants, 70 museums, 200 cinemas, 29 shopping malls and 23 public parks.
“São Paulo is not exotic Brazil,” says Sanovicz. “You won’t find naked ladies, rainforests or beaches here. São Paulo is a business city.”
About a million foreign tourists visited São Paulo last year, of which 31% came from the United States, 18% from Argen-tina and 14% from European Union mem-ber nations. At least 60% of those foreigners were there on business, staying an average 3.7 days and spending an average $311 a day including hotels.
Seven million Brazilians also visited, of which 31% came from São Paulo state, 29% from Minas Gerais, 12% from southern Brazil and 10% from Rio; they spent $170 a day. Sanovicz says only 14% of Brazilians coming to São Paulo stay in hotels, compared with 70% for foreigners, who are usually on fat expense accounts.
Despite garbage in the streets and other problems cited by visitors, Sanovicz says he’s quite optimistic about São Paulo’s tourism future. “During the 1970s and 80s, we were outside the market, and we lacked professionalism and the ability to receive tourists. The quality of our resources — human and technical — was very weak. Now, we’re getting stronger.”
Asked what São Paulo is doing to reach travel agents in the United States, Sanovicz replied: “First of all, we organize trade fairs in partnership with the Brazilian federal government. Besides this, we do workshops in New York and elsewhere. “For 2000, we are planning partnerships with U.S. airlines such as Delta and Continental. We also use the Internet a lot, but we don’t buy advertising. We think this is the government’s job.”