BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — Art, mysticism and religion. Not your typical inducements to visit a destination, but that's what the tourism official for the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais promised us after we landed here in its capital.
Minas Gerais, and Brazil as a whole, delivered on all three. But surprisingly, I discovered a fourth enticement: Brazil's hospitality scene.
From its network of the traditional family-run inns known as pousadas to well-known luxury properties such as Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Palace, the country's hotels are as diverse as its far-flung destinations.
"The Brazilian infrastructure is undergoing major change," said Adam Carter, owner of Brazil Nuts travel agency in Naples, Fla., and president and chairman of the Brazil Tour Operators Association.
"Up until maybe five years ago, it was really chocolate, vanilla and strawberry," he said, with the country's hotel offerings consisting of "concrete monoliths, a few funky beach resorts, maybe a few pousadas that were long in the tooth and hadn't been updated."
But in the last five years, Carter said, "The flavors have greatly expanded to Carvel and Haagen-Dazs. There are all different kinds of hotels throughout Brazil. From Rio and Santa Teresa, up along the Bahia Coast, there are super-elegant beach resorts. So Brazil is catching up to the rest of the world. They have a property for everyone. The properties are not the problem. They used to be, but they no longer are."
Nevertheless, Brazil does face myriad problems, some very large, as it launches an aggressive plan to leverage its status as host country for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to significantly boost international tourism and develop its tourism infrastructure. For example:
- Most Brazilians speak only Portuguese.
- The country has an ample supply of hotels, but many still don't meet international standards.
- Traffic jams in major cities can turn five-mile trips into hour-long adventures.
- And while international airlift, particularly from the U.S., has increased significantly over the past few years, many of the airports are still quite basic.
Against that backdrop, the country has committed $20 billion over the next decade for everything from improving its airports and hotels to training more multilingual tourism workers.
"There is a lot of investment being made by the federal government," said Miguel Jeronimo, who heads the country's tourism office in New York. "That $20 billion is being spent in six different areas: airports, where we think it will come to about $5.5 billion; ports, about $740 million; urban mobility, $11.2 billion; security, which means safety, about $1.6 billion; and hospitality, about $1 billion, although we expect most of the hospitality investment to be private."
Indeed, Brazil is a top target for expansion among international hotel chains, often mentioned in the same breath as India and China. While there is some new investment in this city and other World Cup host cities, most of the international investment is focused on purchasing and branding existing properties in anticipation of growth in domestic tourism as well as international visitors (see In the Hot Seat).
Brazil's goal, Jeronimo said, is to double the number of international visitors, from its current 5 million to more than 11 million by 2020. At the same time, the country wants spending by foreign visitors to increase more than 300%, to $12.6 billion a year by 2020.
"I don't know if that is attainable, but that certainly is the goal," Jeronimo said.
Diogo Canteras, senior partner in HVS Global Hospitality Services' Sao Paulo office, closely monitors the country's hotel industry and investment potential. Brazil, he said, will face steep challenges in increasing those numbers.
"I heard a lecture where a guy was talking about how France has 74 million tourists," he said. "We have tremendous potential, but Brazil is far from everything; it is very difficult to reach Brazil. On top of that, nobody speaks English. And Brazil is a very expensive country. ... So Brazil has the potential for international tourists, but a small potential. It's nothing like that of France. It's the same as Australia or South Africa. We have to compare Brazil to these destinations."
Canteras added: "We do have a very interesting potential for [domestic] tourists. ... Forget international tourism. They will come to Brazil, but it will always be a small portion of our market. We have to gear our efforts to our domestic market, which is growing big and fast."
More than just beaches
Since 1997, 49 U.S.-Brazil routes have been added, bringing total airlift to and from the U.S. to 191 weekly flights. Bolstered by that increase and the federal government's strong investment, states like Minas Gerais are expanding their international tourism outreach programs.
Recently, that state hosted the U.S.-based Brazil Tour Operators Association to showcase its destinations and hotels.
To most Americans, Brazil means beaches, the Iguazu Falls and the Amazon. But states like Minas Gerais offer a host of other attractions.
Brazil's mining region and one of its wealthier states, Minas Gerais not only offers one of the world's most interesting contemporary art museums but also boasts a network of national parks ripe with adventure travel opportunities and an enclave of colonial towns with hundreds of old churches full of art and history.
Our first stop was Belo Horizonte, the country's third-largest city, with a population of 2.5 million. The modern city reminded me a bit of Washington: very orderly compared with the bigger, more hectic metropolis of Rio de Janeiro.
The contemporary Liberty Palace is a four-star, midsize business hotel with a comfortable lobby and simple but modern rooms. The bathrooms are large, and the rooms offer all the features an international traveler expects today: good beds, hair dryers, flat-screen TVs, a minibar and a safe. On a recent visit, it was also immaculate.
But a visit to the Ouro Minas Palace, billed as the city's only five-star hotel, made it clear that the country's rating system is inconsistent. The rooms were much smaller and more run-down, although the large hotel offered more dining and other amenities.
There are few international brands in this city, though several of the 16 hotels being built in advance of the World Cup will carry European branding.
Outside of Belo Horizonte and the town of Brumadinho is the world-famous Instituto Cultural Inhotim, a 3,000-acre botanical garden and contemporary art museum. The exhibits, scattered throughout the park, offer a range of interactive wonders, including a room with a 600-meter hole in the ground that projects the sounds of the earth and an igloo with a fountain that in the special lights looks like an ice sculpture.
Even travelers who are not normally museum or art gallery aficionados would no doubt eagerly return to the fascinating Instituto Cultural Inhotim.
From there we moved on to the colonial cities of Tiradentes, Sao Joao del Rei, Mariana and Ouro Preto, which used to be the country's capital. The cities have hundreds of old churches and other historical buildings tucked away along their cobblestone streets.
Although these four cities are quite small and somewhat remote for many international travelers, they are established tourism destinations and as such have a nice variety of restaurants offering everything from the best of the local cuisine — cheese bread, lots of meat and fresh vegetables — to gourmet international fare that rivals offerings in the world's finest restaurants.
They also have a growing number of pousadas that offer international travelers everything they would expect to find in four- or five-star accommodations.
In fact, much of the charm of these cities lies in their lack of international brands and the presence of the pousadas, which in many ways define the boutique hotel experience that many larger properties around the world try so hard to create.
"They have those little unknown jewels to be discovered," Jeronimo said. "I didn't even know how great the pousadas were out in the historical cities."
Perhaps the creme de la creme of the colonial hotel scene is Ouro Preto's Solar do Rosario, which could easily be considered a destination unto itself. The 41-room hotel is a restored 19th century building. It sits atop one of the city's winding cobblestone streets, next to its famed Rosario Church and with a rooftop pool and deck overlooking the city.
Each of the hotel's rooms has a character of its own, from a more traditional standard room with a claw-foot tub to sprawling suites overlooking a courtyard.
We stayed at the Pousada do Arcanjo, which revealed to some of our group the "mysticism" or nontraditional spiritualism that many visitors say they experience in this city. Two people in our group had what they described as late-night "spiritual" visits, although not of the type you would want more than once.
I, however, slept well and was left alone in my room, which had all the necessities (makeup, mirror, iron, safe, hair dryer, minibar). But, physically at least, it had the least personality of the places we stayed.
Tiradentes is a much smaller town, with a population of just 7,000, compared with Ouro Preto's 66,000. Yet it has several upscale pousadas that offer a mix of history with all the modern touches. We stayed at Pequena Tiradentes, one of the larger pousadas. It was built into a hill, and the rooms had big, wooden double doors and antique-style furnishings, all of which could also be purchased.
Closer to town was the 18-room Solar da Ponte, which has found itself on some of the world's most prestigious hotel rankings.
Many of these upper-end inns also offer pools, hot tubs and workout facilities, but their best characteristic is their historical charm.
Like much of Brazil, Minas Gerais holds much broader, untapped tourism potential in the form of adventure travel.
Lucas Davis, an official with the state tourism office, said tourism officials are working to build up the state's adventure travel offerings.
Among the adventures already offered are weeklong bicycle tours along the 900-mile Estrada Real, the route used in colonial times to take the gold mined in the Minas Gerais to the coast to be shipped to Portugal.
And at an abandoned gold mine outside Ouro Preto, scuba divers can explore a 400-meter-deep lake, which begins 300 meters below ground.
Davis said the state also has a wealth of adventure opportunities in its state parks, which offer everything from waterfalls to caves to bird-watching. However, he said, work still needs to be done to offer modern pousadas as well as to train employees in tourism and language.
"We are starting to qualify them to prepare them for the market," he said of adventure tour operators. He said that for the first time this year, the country participated in an adventure tourism fair in New York.
The Brazil Tour Operators Association's Carter said Brazil offers something for everyone.
The challenge, he said, "is getting the word out and getting people to think of Brazil in a multidimensional sense. In many people's minds it's still a one-note samba: Carnival."
Even so, Carter said, "That is starting to change. With states getting involved in tourism promotion, they are all starting to carve out little niches in the mindspace and create layers. ... So the richness of the product is slowly coming to the fore."
For more photos, view the Boutique Brazil slideshow here.