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collage_20131205154743648_20131211235334178-1Lots of people ask me whether I think the World Cup will be a success and I usually answer in two parts.

Yes, it will be great for a month and the people who come here will have a fantastic time.

But when they leave, Brazilians will be left with the bill, the shocking lack of a legacy infrastructure, and a tragic feeling, especially if the home side wins, that everything in their country is hunky dory.

The next question is often, Why do think it will be great when you have all these criticisms?

I found the perfect answer to that question last week at the World Cup draw. Every morning at breakfast dozens of colourful little birds flew around the hotel’s outdoor dining room. A colleague said he saw a family of meerkats nearby.

Brazil can be a hugely enchanting country and Brazilians have an undeniable charm. Sitting down to breakfast and seeing wildlife up close is an unforgettable experience for a visitor.

Fans come for the football and seeing the World Cup in the game’s spiritual home will be a dream come true for many.

Put that together with friendly natives, beaches, sunshine, music and one month-long party atmosphere, and that’s more than enough to send a visitor home enraptured with their South American stay.

I’ve no doubt those will be the memories most people will take away with them.

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Brazil’s beaches are in the news today for good and bad reasons.

The Guardian has this slideshow on the country’s top 10 beaches.

But the Huffington Post has a feature on the world’s most dangerous beaches and includes both Rio’s Copacabana and Boa Viagem in Recife on their list. The former because of crime and the latter because of the danger from sharks.

I like Trinidade from the Guardian pick (pictured above) but when I lived in Rio the beach I most liked to go to was Prainha. More for the view from the no frills restaurant overlooking the horseshoe bay than the beach itself. You could sit up there eating fried fish and watching the surfers. Lovely….

One of the biggest complaints I hear from ordinary Brazilians is that foreigners associate Brazil with the same old stereotypical images. They blame the foreign press for selling those images abroad.

– Gringos think Brazil is either favelas, beaches or jungle.

– Gringos think all Brazilian women are sex maniacs in tiny bikinis.

– Gringos think everyone here spends their days playing football, dancing samba or lying on the beach.

I hardly need stress that those are grotesque cliches.

But it’s not the foreign press that perpetuate those stereotypes. It’s Brazilians themselves. In fact, Brazil makes a point of selling those images overseas.

The best example of that came in the Olympic closing ceremony, where Brazil was represented, and not unfairly, by a samba-ing bin man and dancing indians. The background was the promenade at Copacabana beach. Pele appeared.

I tweeted this at the time:

Nunca mais quero ouvir Brasileiro reclamando que gringo acha que Brazil ‘e so samba e carnaval e indio…

and got a huge response from Brazilians who seemed to agree.

(The tweet says: “I never again want to hear Brazilians complaining that gringos think Brazil is all about samba and carnival and indians.”)

Further cliches abound in a song released this week to celebrate Rio de Janeiro taking the Olympic mantle from London.

The song is called Os Deuses do Olimpo Visitam o Rio de Janeiro, or The Olympic Gods Visit Rio de Janeiro. It features many of the city’s best known musicians and some of its most famous personalities. (Although curiously, there are no sportsmen or women involved.)

The video is great, with amazing pictures of the city.

The problem is that it’s full of the same old cliches Brazilians say they hate. Samba. Favelas. Beaches. Christ the Redeemer. Football.

They chorus is even that tiresome phrase: Rio de Janeiro continua lindo, or Rio de Janeiro is still beautiful.

The point I want to make here is not that these cliches are untrue. Like all cliches, they have their roots in reality.

The point is that Brazilians can’t have it all ways. You either come up with some new ways to sell the city and the country or you accept that people are going to associate Brazil with samba, beaches, scantily clad dancers and kids playing football in favelas.

Personally, I think the strategy makes total sense. I don’t see the problem with concentrating on your strengths.

Rio’s favelas are iconic. The country’s football players are the best in the world. The beaches are beautiful. Samba and carnival are both spectacular and seductive. Christ and Sugarloaf are unbeatable postcard images. And who doesn’t find Brazilian women charming and attractive?

Enjoy these things, they are what make Brazil so unique.

Just relax and let the world will enjoy them too. And don’t blame me if gringos can’t see past them.

The World Cup is still two years away and here’s a small but symbolic example of why people are worried the organisation will be a disaster (in addition to the delays in stadium construction, the turmoil at the CBF and the woefully insufficient airports and infrastructure.)

This is the brand new online guide to the 12 host cities, created by Brazil’s tourist agency Embratur.

It’s a good idea done poorly, from the clunky graphics, to the unclear layout, to the dodgy English.

Brazil’s Tourism Ministry has a reported annual budget of 180 million reais (around $100 million) to spend on enticing visitors to come to Brazil.

Would it really be that difficult to hire a native English speaker to do the translations? Or do they really think Fortaleza has a “lively night and Brasilia has a “unique sky?”

I wrote a travel piece recently about São Paulo that started something like this:

      “The first thing to do before touching down in São Paulo is forget all those glamorous images you have of Brazil. Forget about long sandy beaches packed with beautiful people in skimpy bikinis, the glorious postcards of Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf mountain, or the sensuous beat of samba and carnival.

     That’s Rio de Janeiro. São Paulo is its ugly sister.

     But like many an ugly sister forced to take a back seat to the sibling who had it all, São Paulo has carved out a niche for itself through hard work and dedication. This once small coffee town has grown in size and stature to become one of the most interesting, cosmopolitan and dynamic cities in the world.

     São Paulo and the surrounding metropolis of 20 million people is Brazil’s industrial and financial capital, with some of the best culture, gastronomy, fashion and nightlife not just in Brazil but in the whole southern hemisphere.”

Unfortunately, the editor thought it was too negative and I had to rewrite it.

I thought about that story this morning when I saw in the papers that São Paulo is to get an official city tour bus, one of those red double decker things that pick people up and drop them off at sites around the city.

The SP tour, according to the Folha de S. Paulo

My first thought was, “Where are they going to take them?”

And my second was, “They’ll spend half their time in traffic.”

Most of the world’s big cities have these tours and I think this is São Paulo wanting to be like the big boys in London, Paris and New York.

But I can’t for the life of me work out the point of it all. There simply isn’t very much to see in São Paulo.  Reports say – typically there is nothing on the official SPTuris site – that the bus will visit the municipal market, Pacaembu football stadium, Avenida Paulista, Ibirapuera park, the Japanese neighborhood of Liberdade, and the city’s opera house, amongst other places (see diagram right). These are not sites to excite a foreign visitor.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Sampa is a fascinating city. But when I wrote that travel piece I struggled to come up with interesting things to do outside museums. The football museum is a must, and there are a dozen other good ones, the highlight for me being the Museu AfroBrasil.

But São Paulo’s appeal is in its night life and its shopping. Go to the high fashion stores on Oscar Freire, walk around Vila Madalena’s funky shops and galleries, and hit the town with Bahian food at Rota do Acaraje or tapas at Clos de Tapas, before drinking and dancing at Alberta #3 or Astronete or Lions.

The city tour bus is a nice idea if you live in Berlin or London, but one that is totally out of place with the reality of São Paulo.

It will, however, provide visitors with the quintissential São Paulo experience. You’ll spend hours stuck in traffic.

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