Rio has much more to do, but many of the issues it's worried about -- traffic, transportation, prices, building schedules -- are the same issues Olympic hosts deal with every four years.
Successful tourist destinations around the world have: good access; comprehensive transportation; accommodation to suit a range of budgets and tastes; a broad range of products such as museums, events, tours, attractions; a political agenda to support the economy via tourism; a commercial sector that can deliver and a resident population that can work within the tourism sector, delivering great service and a warm welcome.
If I could draw a graph depicting Rio de Janeiro’s trajectory and status against these factors as it prepares to host the 2016 Olympics it would currently be somewhere in the middle, but heading in one direction – upwards.
The accommodation sector is dominated by Brazilian hotels in Copacabana and Ipanema, with the city as a whole currently having 29,000 rooms. Accommodation prices are high due to strong demand and low supply. However, I expect this to change. The port area – Porto Marvilha – is being transformed via a public-private partnership where the city is selling space to domestic and international developers at incentivised rates. Four new hotels will be built here and along with expansion at the main Olympic Park site, Barra. Overall Rio expects to deliver 11,000 more hotel rooms by 2016 taking its total to 40,000. A total of 120,000 rooms were available during the London Olympics.
Rio has an abundance of parks, gardens and beaches, but it knows that it has to broaden its offer to appeal to a wider visitor base that will stay longer, explore the city in depth and spend more money. One such incentive to linger is the new Museum of Art Rio (MAR). A current exhibition focuses on Rio’s image as created through early paintings, cartography, postcards, airline promotional posters, photography and even Mattel’s 1980s “Rio” Barbie dolls. It is indeed a reflection of the image the world holds about Rio – part fact, part fiction.
Rio’s events calendar continues to expand. The city’s major music event, Rock in Rio has become a regular fixture; sailing events and business conventions are being attracted to the city due to its enhanced exposure. Rio should ensure that it promotes itself hard as a business destination that offers both event organisers and delegates a complete package.
Getting around the city is currently challenging due to one key factor: traffic. It is everywhere, constantly. The recurrent question is “what will happen during the Olympics?” There is not enough time to expand the small underground Metro system and the topography of the mountainous landscape make it cost prohibitive. So, plans are afoot to revolutionize Rio’s traffic issues via the BRT (Bus Rapid Transport) system. Dedicated lanes will take large capacity buses whizzing past traffic queues. Will it tempt the car-loving carioca out of their car? Evidence from other Brazilian cities has shown that it is possible to reduce car usage as long as the alternative is more efficient. Costs to use the new system were proposed to be higher than the old system. Considering the wave of recent protests that were triggered by increases in fares, Rio may find funding the new scheme challenging.
Tourism industries require massive workforces – London employs over 250,000 people in its tourism sector. People have to be disciplined, well-trained, speak multiple languages – at least English. The Mayor of Rio knows that to provide for such a future economic opportunity he has to revolutionize the education framework for the city, provide opportunities for all sectors of society, and for everyone to understand the long-term benefits of education. The Rio 2016 Games is being used as a catalyst for this. Sports-focused projects such as the Rochina favela academy and Olympic school in the Santa Teresa favela are using sport to encourage children into attending school for longer periods of time. Rio 2016 is co-funding teachers in some of the schools and talent spotting future Olympians.
London’s Olympics aimed to “inspire a generation”. It does feel like Rio’s Olympics are acting as even more of a catalyst for change. London had much of the city infrastructure in place and is a well-established international destination. Rio is at a very different stage of its development with more work to do with its infrastructure and social integration. The opportunity for Rio is hence much bigger than that it was for London – and so is the risk. If Rio is to become a truly successful international tourist destination in the future it must ensure that all of its plans come to fruition simultaneously and are well promoted. Anything less won’t be good enough for the residents of the city or the very determined Mayor.
Martine Ainsworth-Wells was the marketing and communications director for London & Partners before and during the Games period. She is now the director of agency Ainsworth & Wells, which advises on and implements promotional activities and strategies for international and domestic destinations. Follow her @MartineAWells .
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Photo credit: A man plays a guitar during a protest in downtown Rio de Janeiro. Pilar Olivares / Reuters