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published on August 03, 2008
One from the Road by Bill Hinchberger other columns

Some Reasons Why Brazil Fails at Tourism

São Paulo - Members of the foreign press corps sat down to lunch a few weeks ago with David Barioni Neto, the new president of the Brazilian airline TAM. The discussion ranged far and wide, but it kept returning to one theme: why can’t Brazil realize its enormous potential in tourism?

Sure, the Brazilian tourism agency Embratur spends gobs of taxpayer money to advertise in The New York Times and slap billboards on London buses. It pays for BrazilMax’s foreign-based competitors to visit the country and write fluff pieces that get lost in the wash of similar articles written with similar sponsorship from competing tourism boards in other countries. It has developed a monstrous website that tries to please everyone at home and thus cannot provide the critical information and discerning insight that a potential visitor needs.

I’m trying to track down a study by a US scholar at some hotshot university that compares countries according to their tourism potential in terms of attractions and the number of foreigners that actually visit. Brazil, I understand from an informed source, ranks dead last: great potential, relatively few visitors.

But insiders don’t need studies to help them see the obvious. Noted Barioni Neto: “We still capture a small number of tourists.” Later he added, “Turkey brings in more tourists than Brazil does.”

Our conversation with Barioni Neto helped explain why. Here are some of the highlights:

High airfares and taxes – Brazil is a big country, and foreign visitors invariably must take domestic flights to reach far-flung destinations. Everyone complains about the high airfares. They’re easier to understand when you learn that the tax burden for Brazilian airlines is 65%, compared to 36% in the United States.

High costs for other tourism services and taxes – It isn’t just airfares. Indeed Brazil ranks up there with Scandinavian countries in terms of tax revenues as a proportion of GDP, even though the payback to citizens languishes in African latitudes. “If hotel taxes in the US are 7% and in Brazil they’re 60%, there’s no use,” said Barioni Neto.

High airfares and lack of competition – Well, that brings us back to taxes, in Barioni Neto’s view. “We’re not afraid of competition, but it has to be with similar cost structures,” he said. “If the Brazilian government wants national airlines either it has to protect them or lower taxes. We’re in favor of open skies – as long as we do our homework first.”

Visas for foreigners – Something called the reciprocity law requires Brazilian bureaucrats to subject foreigners to treatment similar to that afforded to Brazilians in their countries of origin. Of course, this law is selectively applied: my pet peeve is that Brazilians with green cards enter the United States without having to wait forever in the “foreigner” lines in New York, Miami and Los Angeles; yet foreigners like me with permanent residency in Brazil can’t cut into the “local” line in São Paulo. Yet when it comes to making trouble for foreign tourists, the law is applied in full: nationals of any country that requires Brazilians to apply for tourist visas must obtain visas to enter Brazil. This might seem fair in a moral sense, but it clearly cuts into tourism. For example, many US citizens who want to visit the Amazon prefer Ecuador or Peru, countries with relatively small slivers of rainforest but with less hostile entry requirements. US citizens get the biggest play, “but Mexicans have the same problems,” noted Barioni Neto. “Itamaraty (the nickname for the Brazilian foreign ministry) needs to have an idea of what’s going on in the (tourism) business.”

Overcrowding at Brazilian hub airports, especially São Paulo – The TAM president said that his company wants to build a new terminal at the airport in Campinas, a town located 100 kilometers north of São Paulo, to absorb some of the traffic that now swamps the Congonhas airport within São Paulo’s city limits and the international airport in neighboring Guarulhos. “We have the cash on hand, and we have partners,” said Barioni Neto. All they lack is the go-ahead from the federal government, he said.

If the feds can’t be bothered, what can the locals do? – Until recently Natal ranked 14th among Brazilian tourism destinations. Today it ranks number three. Barioni Neto praised their work in beefing up the infrastructure for tourism and sprucing up the place for visitors. Brazilian politicians famously like to scuttle anything their predecessors had in the works, but as the TAM president put it “there are certain programs that are important no matter who the mayor is – things like security and education,” he said. “Tourism is another one.”

As we dug into dessert, I finally asked Barioni Neto if we might expect action from the federal government on any of the above items. He of course tried to be diplomatic, but the real answer was a simple no.

After seven years running BrazilMax, I’ve come to a similar conclusion. The federal tourism board Embratur spends taxpayer money in questionable ways to promote Brazil abroad while the rest of the government plots, consciously or not, against tourism.

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