Brazil reports big jump in U.S. visitors after making visa process a lot easier

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Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro
Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Dmitry Islentev/Shutterstock

Brazil is poised to become the poster child for the benefits of relaxed visa policies. Just seven months after the country eased its visa restrictions, making it easier, faster and cheaper for Americans to travel there, it has seen a surge in U.S. visitors procuring visas.

The uptick was part of what Brazil's Ministry of Tourism reported was an overall increase of 8% in foreign visitors from January through June of this year, compared with the first six months of 2017. Those 3.2 million international visitors also spent $3.24 billion in Brazil, an almost 6% jump in spending. 

But when it comes to U.S. visitors, the growth is bound to be far more substantial: Brazil reported a 44.2% increase in visas processed in April of this year compared with April 2017; a 35.7% jump in both May and June; and a 48.6% leap in July.

While several factors might have contributed to the rise, tour operators, travel advisers and the ministry itself credit Brazil's e-Visa program. Introduced in November 2017 for citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan and the U.S., it enables visitors from those countries to apply for a visa online with average approval times of about 72 hours. 

The program launched in January for Americans. Visas processed in the other three countries also surged this year. 

Previously, U.S. citizens had to visit a Brazilian consulate or visa center and in some cases, depending on where they lived, supply copies of bank statements in order to get a visa. Some operators said their clients were even asked to submit credit card statements. 

The price of a Brazil visa also dropped for Americans, to $40 from $160. 

The change, coupled with an ensuing increase in demand, was enough to encourage Quasar Expeditions to move ahead with plans to build a ship for river cruises on Argentina's Parana River. Itineraries for the product, expected to launch in 2020, will include Brazil. 

Dolores Gangotena, Quasar's co-founder, said that under Brazil's previous visa requirements, many Americans were turned off by the idea of sending personal financial information to a foreign consulate. 

"The visa issue with Brazil was one of the problems we faced when planning the itinerary for the new riverboat," she said. "This is the main reason for a big decrease of American visitors to Brazil. I am sure this will change now."

Tour operators that offer Brazil are seeing similar increases in demand and are adding capacity as a result.

Michael Schneider, Latin America specialist with Audley Travel, said the company doubled the number of Brazil trips it offered this year from nine to 18.

"The visa process to enter Brazil was a major hurdle for our clients in the past, in particular older clients or first-time travelers," Schneider said. "It was a process that made clients uneasy to book a trip because of the additional work required for simple entry."

He added that the new visa process has helped Audley secure more close-in bookings. 

"In the past, it took a month to get a visa," he said. "Now we can get a visa within five days."

International Expeditions said that after declining for five years, demand for Brazil rebounded significantly this year. The tour operator attributes that mostly to the eVisa program as well as to other factors such as interest following the Olympics and World Cup in Brazil and a resurgence of the jaguar population in the Pantanal region.

"It's all really coming together at the right time," said Emily Harley, International Expeditions' marketing manager. She said the operator relaunched its Pantanal program last year to "mild success," but this year it sold out, and the company is already seeing bookings for 2019. While its numbers are small -- the maximum group size is 18 -- the operator is already planning to add another departure next year. 

Isaias Reis, director of Infinity SAS and its sister company, RLM Brazil, a Rio de Janeiro-based DMC that does about $300,000 in annual business from the U.S., said the companies are seeing an increase of between 10% and 15% in American business this year. He said he could only attribute the increase to the change in the visa process, since they are not seeing that kind of growth in markets that were not impacted by the eVisa.

"Nothing else has changed," he said. "Nothing else would be responsible for that."

A 'proven' visitor incentive

The results bolster the arguments of entities like the U.S. Travel Association and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), which claim that making visa acquisition easier increases travel and spurs economic growth.

U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow said, "It's proven that positive visa policies can increase tourism to a country. After South Korea was added to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP), the number of South Korean visitors to the United States increased three times faster than total overseas arrivals to the United States." 

Those Korean travelers, U.S. Travel has reported, spent $8.6 billion in 2016, when 2 million arrived. 

Will Brown, U.S. Travel's senior director of government relations, said, "When qualified countries are able to join the VWP, the economic benefits are abundant."

Visa facilitation is a core goal of the WTTC. The council has reported that visa facilitation has historically increased international tourist arrivals of affected markets by 5% to 25%. 

Brazilian officials hope the country's recent visitor numbers are only the beginning. The ministry estimated in January that the new eVisa program would boost tourism from the U.S. by at least 25%, possibly as much as 50%. 

Their projections might hold, given that the ministry reported that by 2019 there will be six new direct international flights to Brazil, three of them between Sao Paulo and Las Vegas.

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