"Brazil is a youth brand to die for," wrote
Simon Anholt, managing director of World Writers, a London
consultancy specializing in global brand development, in the
trade publication Advertising Age. "It's all about samba, carnival,
ecology, sex, beaches, sport and adventure."
Despite its envious image, Brazil
allowed little Central American countries to take the lead in
the development of specialized tourism in Latin America. Now
the region's most bioregionally diverse nation -- big enough
to encompass 150 Costa Ricas -- finally appears primed to flex
its muscles on the ecotourism front.
Government officials and travel professionals are beginning
to register the country's ecological treasures as assets rather
than dormant liabilities to be preserved only under international
and domestic political pressure. "Ten years ago ecotourism was
a dirty word," recalls Guilherme Wendel de Magalhaes of the
consultancy Terra. "From a bad guy it became a privileged sector."
Brazilian ecotourism began to grow exponentially after the
country woke up to its eco-potential during the 1992 Earth Summit
in Rio de Janeiro. Reliable numbers remain scarce, but industry
sources estimate that each year about 1 million ecotourists
-- roughly half of them foreigners -- now visit destinations
like the Pantanal, the world's largest wetlands, and Abrolhos,
a coastal whale-watching paradise. As the tourism industry overall
grows by 3% a year, ecotourism is up by 15%. As the customary
home base for Pantanal explorers, the city of Bonito is experiencing
20-30% annual growth in its tourism trade.
Ecotourism can offer much needed employment to unskilled and
semi-skilled workers who languish on Brazil's unemployment rolls.
With a population of less than 20,000, Bonito already counts
on some 2,000 jobs in the sector, according to Joao Meirelles
Filho, president of the Peabiru Ecotourism Institute and of
the Brazilian Ecotourism Institute (IEB). In the state of Sao
Paulo, ecotourism and rural tourism now employ 600,000 -- outranking
the sugar industry, a traditional stronghold, adds Meirelles.
Ecotourism is even stimulating the publishing industry. In a
country where 95% of tourism is domestic, the number of eco-tourism
magazines in Portuguese for the general public accelerated from
zero to five in less than a decade -- with four more on the
way. "You bring the service sector to rural areas, and it lives
in harmony with ranching and farming," notes Meirelles. "Today
there is hardly a mayor around who doesn't talk about his city
as the ecotourism capital."
Sao Paulo state launched an intensive study of ecotourism
opportunities in one of its poorest regions, the Ribeira Valley,
which includes a swath of the Atlantic Rainforest that runs
along the south-central Brazilian coast. "Ecotourism," says
Governor Mario Covas, "will allow not only the incorporation
of a vast segment of the population into the productive system,
but it will act as an agent of sustainable development of protected
Yet the untapped potential remains enormous. Now accounting
for just 15% of the travel industry, ecotourism could make up
as much as 50% by 2010, estimates Dorival Bruni, president of
the non-profit Biosphere Society. Just to take the most obvious
example, Brazil serves as custodian to the world's largest rainforest,
the Amazon. Yet today only 50,000 tourists make the Amazon their
destination of choice each year.
Thanks to financing by the Inter-American
Development Bank (IDB), Brazil is launching a two-step program
to realize its ecotourism vocation. The project ranks as the
IDB's most generous ever in ecotourism development. It began
last year with a $13 million pilot program called Proecotur
to support projects in the Amazon. Upwards of a dozen promising
ecotourism sites will receive assistance under the first phase
of the program. Based on that experience, a $200 million nationwide
program is scheduled to follow -- with half the cash going to
the government for infrastructure improvements and half to the
private sector to develop specific attractions, accommodations,
etc. "Normally you ask for the money first and see how things
work out later," says Roberto Morao, president of the Brazilian
Ecotourism Association (Ecobrasil). "But we're going to see
how it works first and then move forward."
In a parallel but independent program, the Peabiru Institute
plans to address what it judges to be the major barriers to
ecotourism in the Amazon: poor human resources, lack of trust
internationally in the quality of Brazilian operators, and lack
of information about the region that the institute believes
leads to "fear and distrust" on the part of potential visitors.
Peabiru's Amazonfoot program will include professional training,
independent certification for operators and a public awareness
program. The latter effort, an international campaign called
"If we visit the Amazon we save it" counts on the pro bono services
of the advertising firm Oglivy & Mather.
Proecotur is in part a result of a public-private working
group established by the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration
to study ecotourism opportunities in the Amazon in 1996. But
the government hasn't limited its efforts just to the rainforest.
Also in conjunction with the IDB, an ambitious Pantanal Project
includes an ecotourism component. In partnership with private
IEB, the government tourism agency Embratur hired the Terra
consultancy to make a comprehensive study of potential ecotourism
sites around the country. Some 88 different eco-poles have been
identified. "We mapped all the regions and outlined all the
public policies [for ecotourism] for them," says Magalhaes.
Many state and local governments are launching independent initiatives
to improve infrastructure and promote travel in these poles.
Among the leading 2011
Visionnecks blocking Brazilian ecotourism
development is its transportation infrastructure. Outside of
major urban centers, few of the country's airports are prepared
to receive large numbers of visitors. Flights to many ecotourism
destinations are irregular and overpriced by international standards.
One leading Brazilian airline, TAM, has begun offering an
Ecopass that would allow travelers to visit several destinations
for one cut-rate far. In conjunction with this initiative, an
associated but independent company called TAM Vainness began
offering packages to selected ecotourism destinations.