Rio sails into headwinds

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Visitors flock to Rio de Janeiro’s Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer) statue, which sits 2,330 feet above the Atlantic.
Visitors flock to Rio de Janeiro’s Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer) statue, which sits 2,330 feet above the Atlantic. Photo Credit: Danny King

The seat-back display on our Avianca flight from Bogota, Colombia, showed an 80 mph tailwind as we headed south to Rio de Janeiro, an irony, considering the proverbial headwinds this city is facing as the host of the Summer Olympics.

On the positive side, Rio is an absolute stunner. Take San Francisco's steep hills, amazing vistas and serpentine network of bays and coastline, then ratchet those up a notch.

Factor in the world-famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, with the former's bustle and the latter's athletic sensuality, and you have a bit of Miami mixed with Los Angeles' Venice Beach.

A visit to the city's central Lapa district and a stroll down Rua do Lavradio, with its jazz clubs and facade-lit buildings dating to the 18th century, might draw comparisons to New Orleans, especially after a few glasses of caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail of lime, sugar cane and distilled cachaca.

Finally, add in the temperate climate and 11 miles of surfable beaches in the city's Barra da Tijuca district, and some of the best parts of San Diego might come to mind.

All of that is wrapped up in a city and metropolitan area that approximates both the size and population of L.A.

Then there's the hospitality, or at least what we experienced of it, during our 72-hour Avianca-sponsored tour of Rio last month.

Rio de Janeiro’s Museu Selecao Brasileira opened in the Barra da Tijuca section to honor Brazil’s soccer history.
Rio de Janeiro’s Museu Selecao Brasileira opened in the Barra da Tijuca section to honor Brazil’s soccer history. Photo Credit: Danny King

It started with our guide from ground tour operator Del Bianco, Marcelo Fontes, and it extended to the people we encountered at iconic attractions such as the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado mountain as well as at less well-known destinations such as the Museu do Amanha (Museum of Tomorrow) in the recently cleaned-up waterfront area at the city's Pier Maua, and the spirited Museu Selecao Brasileira, which celebrates the history of Brazil's national futebol traditions and its FIFA World Cup accomplishments. It was also evident at Rio's clubs and bars, such as Rua do Lavradio's eclectic Rio Scenarium and Barra da Tijuca's 70-year-old Bar do Oswaldo.

No matter where we went, the constant seemed to be an attitude of ebullience, informality and civic pride, which included a palpable rivalry with the larger city of Sao Paulo, about 275 miles to the southwest.

A troubled paradise

Paradoxically, the character of Rio makes the issues facing this city all the more disconcerting with the Summer Olympics looming in less than two months.

Granted, predicting a doomsday scenario for the Olympics has long been an international pastime: the unfinished facilities and suboptimal weather in Sochi, Russia; human rights concerns in Beijing; and fears of terrorism in Athens.

Still, the combination of health, economic and political concerns facing Brazil has resulted in a proliferation of dire predictions that Rio's Games will be an especially dicey affair for the 600,000 people expected to descend on the city for the Summer Olympics (Aug. 5 to 21) and Paralympic Games (Sept. 7 to 18).

The Zika virus

Chief among the concerns is Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that has been linked to severe birth defects and Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an uncommon ailment that can result in paralysis. Best estimates place the number of Zika cases in the state of Rio de Janeiro at 32,000, a total that led an international contingent of 152 scientists and researchers from institutions ranging from the University of Tokyo to Harvard Law School to Universidade de Brasilia to sign an open letter to World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Margaret Chan, arguing that both the WHO and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should give serious consideration to postponing the Games and/or moving them to another location. 

"We recommend that WHO convene an independent group to advise it and the IOC in a transparent, evidence-based process in which science, public health and the spirit of sport come first," the letter stated. "Given the public health and ethical consequences, not doing so is irresponsible."

As of late May, the IOC maintained that the timing of the Olympics (August falls in winter in the Southern Hemisphere) will lower the Zika risks, and it pointed to the WHO's mid-May recommendations that visitors and athletes take preventive measures to avoid being infected.

Those recommendations included using mosquito repellent, wearing light-colored clothing that covers as much of the body as possible and staying in air-conditioned accommodations where the windows remain closed. The WHO also advised against pregnant women traveling to Zika-affected areas such as Rio.

Meanwhile, Brazilian minister of health Ricardo Barros, in a May 24 presentation at WHO headquarters in Geneva, said the city had hired 2,500 people to help at hospitals and first-aid points, while bringing in another 3,500 workers, described as "agents," to help visitors take appropriate measures to prevent mosquito bites.

Rio de Janeiro’s Museu do Amanha (Museum of Tomorrow) opened on the city’s waterfront in December.
Rio de Janeiro’s Museu do Amanha (Museum of Tomorrow) opened on the city’s waterfront in December. Photo Credit: Danny King

A stressed economy

Brazil is the "B" in BRIC, the acronym applied to four countries that represented newly booming economies for the past decade (the others are Russia, India and China). But three of those economies are now in serious trouble, and Brazil is among them. After years of expansion, the country's GDP fell 3.8% last year. The country is currently suffering its worst recession in a quarter-century.

On the plus side for Americans is that the dollar has doubled in value relative to the Brazilian real during the past three years, making Brazil an especially good value. That said, the effects of the recession could be felt by anyone traveling outside of the insular bubble provided by a tour bus.

A walk along Ipanema Beach on a weekday morning meant encountering more police cars than lifeguards. And for someone accustomed to Southern California surf shops, where service is best described as "benign neglect," the extremely aggressive sales tactics at the surf shops near Rio's Arpoador can be unsettling.

Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau director Michael Nagy, in a mid-May presentation to our tour group, acknowledged such issues, which may be ratcheted up by the country's economic challenges, but made it a point to frame those problems as minor compared to other parts of the world.

"We have social problems, but we don't have the racial and religious issues Europe has," Nagy said. "What we have is petty theft."

Sao Paulo’s Bar Samba combines nightly live samba music with a laid-back vibe.
Sao Paulo’s Bar Samba combines nightly live samba music with a laid-back vibe. Photo Credit: Danny King

Political upheaval

Our visit coincided with the suspension of president Dilma Rousseff, which appeared to leave the Rio locals nonplussed (and predicting an impeachment) but two days later in Sao Paulo caused our tour bus to take a detour to avoid protests.

Taken all together, Zika, the economy and, to a lesser extent, politics appear to be having an impact on local tourism. On one hand, Rio's hotel rooms as of late May were more than 90% booked for the Olympics, with coastal neighborhoods such as Ipanema and Leblon full up.

On the other hand, Brazil's RevPAR in April, the most recent month tracked, fell 4.8% from a year earlier, as the impact of a slight drop in room demand was magnified by the 3.7% year-over-year increase in room supply, STR said.

Not surprisingly, local tourism officials downplayed the Zika issue. Nagy insisted that the virus, at least in the city, "is not an epidemic" and that its potential danger is being overblown by the media. Apparently most of Rio agrees. Unlike cities such as New York, which this spring began a Zika-prevention campaign that includes public service announcements on subways and TV, no such warnings were to be found anywhere on last month's tour of the city.

More from Brazil

Meanwhile, Rio's lodging industry has been gearing up for years for the 2014 World Cup and the upcoming Olympics, though its infrastructure appears to be playing catch-up. The city's hotel inventory totals some 43,000 rooms, up 65% from three years ago, and that does not count the estimated 25,000 units available through Airbnb.

That inventory runs the gamut. Set to complete $55 million in renovations this month, the 538-room, 42-year-old Sheraton Grand Rio, which hosted our stay, is the classic U.S.-style beach resort, complete with stunning ocean views, multiple eateries, an expansive lobby and its own cove just west of Leblon.

For party animals, there's the 89-room Fasano, which was built in 2007 and designed by architect Philippe Starck. Its touches include mood-lit hallways, trapezoid-shaped rooms and a rooftop pool overlooking Ipanema Beach.

More businesslike is the Windsor Atlantica, formerly a Le Meridien, a 545-room hotel situated across the street from Copacabana Beach. It features a rooftop pool and the well-regarded, 75-seat Italian restaurant Alloro Ristorante.

Farther west in Barra da Tijuca, there's the Sheraton Barra, notable less for its design pedigree and more for its sheer pragmatism: Each of its 292 rooms features both semicircular balconies overlooking the Atlantic and a suite setup, with both a fold-out couch and a kitchenette.

Finally, the Hilton Barra and Grand Hyatt Rio have opened within the past 14 months, while the Nacional, to be reborn as the Gran Melia Nacional, and a Trump Hotels property are slated to open before the Games.

Olympic venues are a work in progress

Less certain than the lodging market, at least as of mid-May, was the state of some of the city's Olympic facilities and infrastructure. While the opening and closing ceremonies will take place at the Maracana Stadium near the city's center, facilities in Barra da Tijuca, such as the velodrome, aquatics center and the Olympic Village, were still works in progress as of mid-May, as were the railroad tracks and stations that are expected to connect Rio's western areas to downtown by next month.

The paradoxes that are Rio were clearly reflected in the attitudes of travel agents who are working to sell Brazil, specifically Rio, as a destination for Americans. Angelica Herrera, a Glendale, Calif.-based agent with Paseo Travel and Tours, called Rio "perfect" because of its combination of cultural, social and gastronomic options. She said she looked forward to packaging Rio with destinations such as Sao Paulo and other nearby regions on or near Brazil's east coast.

The Olympic tennis center has been completed.
The Olympic tennis center has been completed. Photo Credit: Danny King

But while Brian Comrie, a Corpus Christi, Texas-based agent with Travel Leaders, was similarly smitten by Rio, he said that selling Brazil had already been an uphill battle because of concerns over crime. He added that the more recent concerns have pushed more potential clients away from Brazil and toward other South America destinations such as Argentina and Peru.

"I try to encourage people to go [to Rio], because they do love Americans there," Comrie said. "But I do think fewer people are going."

All of which made it more difficult to square the legitimate concerns over Rio as an Olympic host city with my personal experience. Should questions of the Brazilian economy stop you from polishing off batidas at Bar do Oswaldo? Should concerns about Brazilian politics prevent you from admiring the sunset view from atop Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) overlooking a boat-flecked bay? Should fears about Zika wipe out the experience of peering over the side of the cliff just below Christ the Redeemer to watch a bird in flight?

"This city is going to be better for this," Nagy said. "You will find all of Brazil happening inside Rio de Janeiro."

But exactly what that means remains open to interpretation right now.

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