US-Visit: Finger-pointing, parties in Brazil

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- When he came into office in 2003, Brazil's president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva -- known as "Lula" -- introduced a ministry of tourism, and for the first time the country budgeted monies to promote tourism.

So members of the travel industry like Roberto Dultra were surprised when the government started fingerprinting and photographing Americans arriving in Brazil.

"A federal judge in the interior of the country issued an order that made the immigration department implement immediately the same procedures that were being applied to Brazilians entering America," said Dultra, a managing partner of destination management company GB International and vice president of the Brazilian Incoming Tour Operators Association.

"It's based on a law that requires diplomatic reciprocity," said Dultra. "I didn't even know it existed. It came into effect rather abruptly."

The reciprocity was in reaction to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's US-Visit program, introduced Jan. 1, that requires foreign visitors -- including Brazilians -- with nonimmigrant visas to be fingerprinted and photographed at U.S. entry points.

Immigration officials in Brazil were caught off guard by the judge's order, Dultra said. "For the first two days it was absolute chaos at the airports. There were long lines up to eight, nine hours."

But, the Brazilian tourism industry attempted to turn the problem into an opportunity.

The Brazilian Incoming Tour Operators Association, the Rio de Janeiro tourism board, the Hotel Association of Brazil and other tourism industry players pooled their resources to conduct welcoming parties for American tourists waiting in lines to get fingerprinted and photographed.

Varig Airlines donated wet naps and H. Sterns Jewelers gave out pendants to the sometimes-weary U.S. travelers. Visitors also received red roses and T-shirts that said "Rio loves you." Four hostesses handed out the gifts and carnival dancers torqued up the festive mood.

"I didn't think too much of the idea when I first thought of it," said Dultra, "but when I went to the airport and saw it in action I was amazed at the effect it had on the arriving American tourists."

Some visitors clearly were annoyed by the new procedures. "But after the greeting parties, they forgot all about it," Dultra said. "It produced great results."

It also provided ample publicity. "All the major TV networks were there," said Dultra. "The Associated Press was there. NHK from Japan was there. We got great coverage."

The immigration department responded effectively, Dultra said. "They quadrupled staff and put in new equipment to make the process fast." After a few days, there were few lines and a two- or three-minute wait to get through immigration.

The president appointed a committee to study the situation. "He gave them a 30-day deadline to suggest improvements or perhaps recommend scrapping the policy all together," Dultra said, making no secret of his preference.

"We'd like to see them do away with these proceedings," Dultra said. "It's most unfortunate. It's not a measure geared to protecting Brazil from terrorism. We don't have this problem. It's purely diplomatic reciprocity. To us that sounds very dumb."

Meanwhile, the government is considering its alternatives. "There will be a meeting in Brasilia with the minister of tourism to discuss the whole issue," Dultra said. "We're very hopeful something will be done. Ideally we are asking them to forget about the reciprocity principle and look at the country's interest. We are hopeful we will be heard. They have been very cooperative. They haven't avoided us. We are very hopeful it can be resolved soon."

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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