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Miami is capitalizing on its location and reputation as a gateway to South America by building its own soccer culture and encouraging World Cup attendees to spend time and money in its airport and city before moving on to Brazil.

The director of Miami International Airport likens getting MIA ready to handle an extra 50,000 or so World Cup travelers this summer to a military operation.

It involves checking and rechecking. Will the toilets work, will the moving sidewalks all be running smoothly? And then there’s the big one: Will there be a logjam at Customs as passengers bound for the June 12-July 13 FIFA World Cup cities pass through MIA?

“If we get as many extra people as we anticipate, we need to be ready to accommodate them,” said MIA Director Emilio Gonzalez, who has begun using a soccer ball logo on his business cards and emails that touts MIA as the “Gateway to Brazil.”

With air connections to 10 of the 12 Brazilian host cities, Miami will probably experience the biggest Copa effect of any city outside Brazil. And it wants to be more than just a gateway: Tourism officials hope to convince soccer fans to tack a few extra days in Miami on to their trips to Brazil or even use the city as their World Cup base.

American Airlines, for example, is offering a promotion that will allow Brazil-bound passengers to disembark in Miami for 48 hours before flying on to Brazil without incurring any extra flight charges.

And the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau plans to launch a new branding effort, “Miami Soccer Summer,” and a new website in early May to promote Miami’s soccer culture, says Rolando Aedo, the bureau’s executive vice and chief marketing officer.

Signs, a logo and an advertising campaign to celebrate not only Miami’s World Cup connections but also all things soccer — from the city’s growing soccer community to the coming MLS soccer franchise — will be introduced.

MIA already has more flights to Brazil than any other U.S. airport, but for the World Cup, American, TAM and GOL, the three airlines that serve Brazil from Miami, are increasing the frequency of flights, putting larger aircraft on some routes or adding new service.

TAM announced last week that it would begin new direct weekly service May 31 from Miami to Fortaleza, a coastal city in northeastern Brazil and host to six World Cup games.

There is already service from MIA to nine other host cities: Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Manaus, Recife, Salvador, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Curitiba and Porto Alegre. Cuiaba and Natal are the only host cities lacking air service from Miami.

You can also catch a plane from Miami to Belem, and low-fare carrier GOL plans to begin offering three flights per week between Campinas and Miami, via Santo Domingo, on July 18 — just after the World Cup ends. Belem and Campinas aren’t World Cup cities.

Come June, an estimated 578 monthly departures from MIA to Brazil are expected. In comparison, last June there were 437 departures and 75,000 passengers flew to Brazil.

During both June and July, an additional 25,000 Brazil-bound passengers are expected to depart from MIA, bringing the monthly figures to 100,000. When they finish their Brazilian sojourns, presumably many of the passengers will be returning through Miami too.

American Airlines alone will be offering 364 monthly flights to nine Brazilian cities this summer, and it also plans to fly larger planes on one of its twice daily Miami-Rio flights as well as on its service to Recife, which will be increased from four times a week to daily.

That will increase AA seats to Recife by 116 percent, said Marilyn DeVoe, Miami vice president for the airline. This June, 91 of American’s 110 weekly flights from the United States to Brazil will leave from Miami.

“We think we’ve got this covered,” DeVoe said. “Clearly the World Cup is good for business; we will have full flights. We’re excited by Brazil.” Brazil is already Miami’s top international market.

In addition to its new Fortaleza route, TAM will increase service from Miami to Sao Paulo from 14 departures weekly to 17. It will have 39 weekly flights in June.

More U.S. fans have requested FIFA World Cup tickets than any other nation besides Brazil. But MIA isn’t expected to ferry just U.S. soccer fans to Brazil, it will be a crossroads for world travelers too, Gonzalez said.

European and Canadian travelers also will be taking advantage of Miami’s Brazil connections, and new Qatar Airways service from Doha to Miami begins June 10 and will help make Miami a gateway for Middle Eastern and Asian fans too.

To get Miami in the World Cup mood, the FIFA World Cup Trophy, which is on a global tour, arrived at MIA Monday for a two-day stopover.

“They said it was solid gold,” said Gonzalez, who hopes that description also will apply to MIA’s performance during World Cup season.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the crowds,” said Gonzalez, who has been planning for the World Cup influx since last fall. “What we want to do is mitigate any surprises as best as we can. By the way, this is very military.”

One area of concern is handling additional passengers moving through Customs and immigration lines. “If we’ve got immigration problems now, imagine what it could be like this summer,” Gonzalez said.

On a recent visit to the international arrivals area, he found people waiting in line two hours to get their passports stamped and then spending additional time to collect their bags and clear Customs. “That is not how you welcome people,” he said.

Gonzalez said he has been meeting regularly with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and “we’ve been promised some relief this summer.” He said he expected CBP agents from other airports would be sent to Miami during the summer crush.

Events from soccer ball giveaways to soccer-themed games for kids and a soccer art exhibition are planned at the airport. “You will not miss it if you pass through MIA,” DeVoe said.

The convention and visitors bureau also is assembling all World Cup-related activities going on in the community this summer — from block parties to massive viewing events — and making them available on its new website.

The agency also is encouraging hotels to unofficially adopt one of the 32 teams playing in the World Cup so they can plan events, use their colors during Copa season and offer menus themed to the cuisine of a team’s country. Some hotels also will be packaging soccer-themed discounts.

“We’re pitching Miami as the next best thing to being in Brazil for World Cup,” said Aedo.

(c)2014 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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Tags: mia, miami, world cup

Photo credit: A passenger looks out the window at Miami International Airport in Miami December 10, 2013. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

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