Despite worldwide familiarity with aspects of Brazilian culture — the colorful Carnival festival in Rio de Janeiro and soccer obsession, to name a few—the country sees relatively few tourists despite being the largest South American country by population and land area. More than 209 million people call Brazil home, yet it only receives about 6.6 million non-resident tourists each year, according to its tourism ministry. By comparison, the U.K. has a population of 66.4 million and welcomes nearly 38 million visitors per year.
But since conservative president Jair Bolsonaro took office at the beginning of the year, Brazil has been focused on opening its borders to visitors around the world. The country is focused on doubling its tourist numbers by 2022, Brazil’s Tourism Minister Marcelo Álvaro Antônio told Skift in emailed responses. These efforts largely focus on making it easier for tourists to enter the country, as well as strengthening opportunities for foreign and private investment.
One way Brazil has quickly boosted visitors is by rolling back the long-winded and expensive process of obtaining a Brazilian tourist visa, which has been required for tourists in several key countries until this year. According to Álvaro Antônio, eliminating the need for obtaining a tourist visa prior to travel in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan has already led to a 25 percent year-over-year increase in tourists from these countries.
Brazil is also working on relaxing visa requirements for China, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, said Gilson Machado Neto, President of the federally-funded Brazilian Tourist Board (Embratur). India, Singapore, Vietnam are also on the list. Machado Neto recently spoke to Skift’s Rosie Spinks in London at the Brazilian Embassy.
Brazil is also changing the way it markets itself to the world, Machado Neto said, noting that the country “should focus on natural resources.” So, it will look to attract tourists to scuba diving sites and the Amazon rainforest while downplaying Caipirinha cocktails and the poor urban neighborhoods called favelas.
“I would never go to America if it was just the Caipirinha country, just the favela country,” said Machado Neto.
A key focus of the Bolsonaro government has also been increasing private-sector investments and making it easier for foreign companies to invest. Álvaro Antônio noted that the Bolsonaro administration recently opened up the airline market to allow foreign companies to own 100 percent of Brazilian airlines. Four low-cost airlines—Chile’s Sky Airline and Jetsmart, Norwegian Air, and Argentina’s Flybondi—already have operating approvals, he noted. The country is also planning to grow its cruise ship infrastructure.
It should also be noted that Brazilian prosecutors filed charges against Álvaro Antônio for alleged campaign finance fraud in October. Bolsonaro appointed him as Brazil’s Tourism Minister in November 2018, for a term that officially started in January. When asked for comment, the Brazilian Ministry of Tourism provided a statement saying that Álvaro Antônio maintains he did not commit any irregularities in the campaign. “The Minister of State for Tourism of Brazil, Marcelo Álvaro Antônio, reaffirms his confidence in justice and reinforces his conviction that the truth will prevail and his innocence will be proven,” the statement said.
Brazil’s Ministry of Tourism said it will invest $198 million (813 million in Brazilian real) in tourism efforts through 2020. Efforts include providing 63 small businesses with R86 million in financing, and investing R200 million in the first phase of a program that seeks to support small businesses on 30 tourist routes. Meanwhile, Machado Neto said that Embratur is changing to be more focused on the private sector.
But as Brazil seeks to increase its reputation as a large country with biodiversity and immense natural resources to offer tourists, the flip side is that the goal to double tourists in just a few years raises its own environmental concerns. These are especially relevant in light of the Amazon rainforest burning (although Machado Neto denied this, saying in London that the Amazon “is not burning, the Amazon didn’t burn”) and the fact that deforestation has increased almost 40 percent in Brazil since last year, according to reporting in The New Yorker. In addition, Machado Neto expressed little concern about the kind of overtourism that has happened in cities where tourism has rapidly developed, like Lisbon: “I don’t think that will happen in our cities.”
But environmental expert Megan Epler Wood, director of Harvard University’s International Sustainable Tourism Initiative, said that increasing tourist numbers so quickly in any location brings certain environmental risks and social concerns. Preparing the infrastructure needed to manage solid waste, as well as the availability of sewage treatment and fresh water, is crucial. Growing tourism also requires preparing local businesses and local people for the impacts of higher tourism levels. Sustainable tourism also requires making sure Brazilians themselves see the benefits of tourism in addition to the added burden of more visitors, something that’s especially true in less developed regions such as the Amazon.
Just this week, reports came out about the threat of an oil spill to Brazil’s mangrovers and coral reefs.
“I do understand that Brazil has held itself back to a certain extent, but that doesn’t mean it should just open the barn doors and just let everyone pour in and seek to double its growth,” she said. If tourists are evenly spread out across the country, the increase may not be a big issue in theory. But even though Brazil is a large country, it will still have to be prepared for more tourists undoubtedly flocking to iconic destinations such as Rio de Janeiro—even if they stray off the beaten path to more natural destinations.
“I believe proposing doubling a tourism economy in any location is dangerous,” she said. “In the case of Brazil, a little less so because it’s such a large country, and the numbers of tourists are not actually that high,” Epler Wood said. “But, nonetheless, the best sustainability practice would be to spend more time preparing to be certain that these systems are not overwhelmed.”
— Skift Global Tourism Reporter Rosie Spinks contributed to this report.
Kristin Majcher is a Skift contributor based in Bogotá, Colombia.