Latinamerica Press / February 1, 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 Asociação de Hotéis de Turismo. "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 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."
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.
Meanwhile, New York ad agency Jerry & Ketchum has been awarded a $15 million contract to promote Rio de Janeiro to U.S. tourists and counter negative publicity associated with the city's reputation for violent crime. The media blitz will be funded by a consortium composed of the Brazilian tourism agency Embratur; the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau; TurisRio, the tourism agency for the state of Rio de Janeiro; RioTur, the municipal touring authority, 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," said James M. Tenny, executive vice-president for Jerry & Ketchum. In addition, Visa International will promote Rio worldwide through its "Rio Welcomes Visa" program, in which passengers arriving at Rio's Galeão International Airport will receive exclusive offers at participating hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and tourist attractions.