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Report on Brazilian Ecotourism
by Bill Hinchberger


This article was first published in 2000.

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"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 areas."

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.


A former correspondent for The Financial Times and Business Week, Bill Hinchberger publishes BrazilMax (, a website for Brazil-hip foreigners, from his home in Sao Paulo. He can be reached via email.



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