Recently, the Rio de Janeiro government announced its desire to make the city a gay tourist mecca and to compete with other gay-friendly destinations like Buenos Aires and Mexico City for travelers. The city's mayor, Eduardo Paes, declared that Rio is "a city without prejudice," and a newly appointed "diversity secretary hopes Rio's allure and gay events will attract more travelers. While the initiative is a worthy one, it's just part of the city's plan to attract more tourists leading up to the World Cup and Olympics. In 2010, the city received 1.61 million foreign tourists, pouring US$2 billion into the city. It was an increase from 1.49 million in 2009, and marked the largest amount of foreign tourists visiting the city in the past five years.
But considering that Rio is such a stunning city with so much to offer, the numbers are much lower than they could be. Compare last year's 1.6 million foreign tourists to 2.6 million in Buenos Aires, 3.3 million in Sydney, 6 million in Miami, and 7 million in Barcelona, to name a few. There are now more flights than before from North America, Europe, and Latin America, and a range of accomodations for different budgets, so why aren't there more visitors?
One cause could be prices. With the real at an all-time high, as well as inflation, Rio has become extremely expensive. Between the exchange rate and bigger price tags, especially for hotels, it's possible visitors are turning to cheaper destinations. Attractions are more expensive, too: a report this week showed that entry to the Christ the Redeemer and the Sugarloaf are more expensive than a ticket to the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. The other cause could be the economic crisis; with fewer traditional travelers taking vacations, there's fewer visitors to be had.
Another likely cause is fear. Sadly, many potential visitors have erroneous assumptions about the city, thinking that city is a war zone, and that the worst of the city's violence takes place everywhere, even the wealthy areas. There are real risks, though, mainly being the victim of theft or a mugging. There are even stranger risks, like falling off a streetcar, or getting hit by an exploding manhole.
But most people are concerned about violence, so when prospective visitors see stories like this one from earlier in the week, they panic.
"Armed robbers have invaded a luxury Rio de Janeiro hotel, robbing guests of money and phones, Brazilian police say. Four men scaled the wall to enter the Santa Teresa Hotel in central Rio early in the morning, officers said...The Santa Teresa hotel, located in the neighbourhood of the same name, offers "peace of mind and safety" to guests, according to its website." (Read the full article from the BBC)
Santa Teresa is not exactly known for safety, but the most common crime there is getting mugged while walking on empty streets or at night. But this wasn't just any robbery. It was planned by an ex-employee, who also participated in the crime, and the hotel was just 100 meters from a police station. Plus, the nearby favelas are occupied by a pacification force.
Though the UPPs have been lauded by the local press and international media, some have questioned their efficacy, noting that in some cases, traffickers have simply been driven to other favelas. There's other issues too: this week, the director of the Special Police was robbed in his own office when R$5,000 in cash were taken from his desk (what he was doing with all that cash, though, is an entirely different question). Also, the construction company responsible for building UPP buildings as well as government-run health clinics is under investigation for being a shell company, failing to begin construction they were already paid for, and tax evasion.
With more attention on Rio and with public security policy in the spotlight, it's hard to find a strategy to convince potential visitors that the city is a secure destination. One of the newest major international reports is a Vanguard documentary from Current TV called City of God, Guns and Gangs, that premiered tonight. It was really well done, but the overall message wasn't entirely encouraging. The whole episode should go online sometime soon, but for now, here are some excerpts:
In light of these issues to contend with, tourism officials can only hope that visitors will overlook crime and exercise caution, and that the city can limit bad press leading up to 2014. Meanwhile, Cariocas can only hope that the governor's security strategy will actually pay off for those who call the city home.