With the closing ceremony of the Paralympics on Sept. 18, the last in a series of major international events that turned a spotlight on the country, Brazil concluded a Summer Olympic Games that brought scrutiny, controversy, joy and celebration to Rio de Janeiro. Senior editor Sarah Feldberg spoke with Brazilian Tourism Board president Vinicius Lummertz about Rio's portrayal, Zika and the next steps for building tourism in Brazil.
Q: Leading up to the Olympics, ticket sales seemed to be slower than expected. How was attendance?
A: The attendance was high. We had more than 90% of hotels on average full, at peak moments 100%, and if you consider four- to five-star [hotels] 100% again. We had 29,000 hotel rooms [in 2009]. Now we have 60,000 ... plus around 100,000 people who came [through] Airbnb and were dispersed through different neighborhoods, which added to local incomes and to the more local experience of tourism.
Q: There was a lot of negative press before the Games. Did Brazil overcome that?
A: These large events have shown that despite the mistrust of hard news channels [about] Zika, despite our economy, our political chaos, we managed. That shows a lot of flexibility and will. Because these are our Games and our events, they have been organized in a developing country, an emerging country which is a democracy and not a rich country. And we were measured by the standards of developed countries. We have 220 million inhabitants, it's a new democracy, but we did it in the end, and we hope to devise a new economy, the economy of tourism.
Q: Have there been any confirmed cases of Zika related to the Olympics?
A: During the Olympics we had 1,800 foreigners [registered] in Brazilian hospitals, but none with Zika. Zero.
Q: How did Rio connect with viewers and visitors during the Olympics?
A: What got people's attention was it was a very outdoors experience for most people. Rio is an outdoor city. You have the beaches, you have the downtown and you have the mountains and the largest urban forest reserve in the world, so you have a very good setting for the Olympics. This series of large events started in 2007. We had the Pan American Games, soccer events and other major events that were held, so we have a new downtown and also a much better transportation system with five new five-star hotels connected with Ipanema. I think we succeeded in renewing Rio's brand.
Q: Has the Olympics had an impact on interest in tourism to Brazil?
A: Yes. We can see through our website it has grown steeply. We can see in our research 90% of the people who came want to come back.
Q: What's the next step in promotion?
A: Of course we want foreign tourists, but we also want more foreign trade, and we also need more investments in tourism. The World Economic Forum ranks Brazil No.1 in the world in its potential for tourism when it [comes to] natural beauty. So we have a lot of work to do in that area. And we're ranked No. 8 for potential for developing cultural tourism. How we can transform that into foreign investment is lowering red-tape bureaucracy and improving investment conditions in Brazil. This is not the end for us. This is the beginning.