The Miami Herald / February 20, 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 Albao Bezerra de Mello, president of Rio's influential Asociacao de Hoteis de Turismo (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 declined 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 de Janeiro will give Rio hoteliers a badly needed boost. The fact that the event is also being sought by Capetown, Copenhagen, Hong Kong and San Juan, Puerto Rico, 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, it did give the Tourist Hotel Association cause for optimism.
"The next two years will be very important for us," said Mello, estimating that Rio has 200 hotels containing 22,000 rooms, including 5,000 rooms in 16 five-star hotels. "The city is investing $100 million a month in rebuilding streets and roads, or a total of $2.4 billion getting ready for the Games. We hope these efforts will pay off."
Rio already boasts the Maracana soccer stadium, which holds 180,000 spectators, though other Olympic-size sporting facilities would have to be built to accommodate the games.
Latin America hasn't had an Olympics since 1968, when Mexico City hosted the event. Whether Rio can get the Games is uncertain; its reputation for violent crime certainly doesn't help things. On the other hand, Rio -- which derives 40% of its income from tourism -- did pull off the 1992 Earth Summit, and has recently hosted major swimming and golf tournaments without any major problems. The final say on who gets the 2004 Games will be made in 1997 by the International Olympic Committee.
Some observers say the fact that July in Rio is actually winter may hurt the city's chances of landing the summer Games, though that didn't hurt two other Southern Hemisphere cities -- Melbourne, which hosted the 1956 event, or Sydney, which will host the 2000 Summer Games.
Another factor, violent crime, may not be so easily brushed off.
"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."
These days, what's making news is the "corrective action" itself. Last week, a leading human-rights group charged Rio de Janeiro police with violating the fundamental rights of criminal suspects, killing and torturing detainees during a recent crime crackdown. The New York-based Human Rights Watch/Americas, in a 30-page report released Jan. 29, documents 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."
Despite the controversy, major U.S. hotel chains are setting their sights on Rio -- and beyond.
Renaissance Hotels International, which operates Ramada and Stouffer resorts throughout the Caribbean, plans to open its first property in South America later this year in Brazil. The 27-story Renaissance Sao Paulo, with 456 rooms (including 56 suites) will be located one block from Avenida Paulista in the center of Sao Paulo's financial district.
Another hotel conglomerate, Choice Hotels International of Silver Spring, Md., is planning to enter the Brazilian market via an ambitious $200 million deal with Miami-based Barrington International Hotels Inc. to develop up to 150 Clarion, Comfort, Quality and Sleep hotels throughout Brazil.
Spain's Grupo Sol Melia plans to add four hotels this year to the 10 it already manages in Brazil. They include the 202-room Melia Bahia, the 57-room Sol Riverside Bahia, the Sol Piracicaba near Campinas and the Sol Alphaville in the suburbs of Sao Paulo. In addition, the Melia Angra dos Reis near Rio and the Melia Duna Beach Park in Fortaleza will open in 1997, while the 264-room Melia Recife is slated for a 1998 opening.
Finally, the Inter-Continental Hotels & Resorts, which has operated its Rio property for 20 years, plans to open its $55 million, 194-room Inter-Continental Sao Paulo on May 6, with projected sales of $15 million to $20 million in the first 12 months. And that's not all.
"We want to go into Brasilia, Manaus, Fortaleza, Recife and Salvador," said Rodri-guez, adding that a recently formed subsidiary, Inter-Continental Development Co., has begun scouting around for additional hotel properties. "In Brasilia, we plan on building a 300-room hotel plus convention facilities. We believe there's a big market there."