Why does Brazil get so few tourists – and can it turn things around?

Oliver Smith
More people visited Bulgaria last year than Brazil - GETTY

Brazil’s tourist draws are legendary. There’s the Amazon, a wild expanse almost twice the size of India that’s can boast 40,000 plant species, 1,300 birds, the world’s longest river – and an opera house. Or what about Rio, with its riotous carnival, picturesque setting and iconic statue? Few waterfalls anywhere on the planet can trump Iguaçu for beauty.

For something more offbeat, it has Fernando de Noronha, whose beaches are regularly named among the world’s best, Sao Paulo, a booming hub known for its fashion, gastronomy and great hotels, and the Pantanal wetlands, home to jaguars and giant rodents.   

So why does it attract so few overseas visitors? According to a new World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) report, just 5.7 per cent of Brazil’s annual tourism income comes from foreign arrivals. No major destination is more reliant on domestic travellers.

Overseas arrivals to Brazil last year reached 6.6m. Certainly not a trifling sum. But that’s less than the number who ascended the Eiffel Tower. More people visited Bulgaria.

Then consider the size of the country. It’s the world’s fifth biggest nation, accounting for nearly six per cent of all the land on Earth. Yet journeys to Brazil make up less than 0.5 per cent of all overseas trips.

Brazil’s tourist draws are legendary – why so few tourists?

What’s more, while the rest of the world has experienced a travel boom since the turn of the millennium, arrivals in Brazil have barely budged. The figure for 2005 was 5.4m, so last year’s 6.6m represents an increase of only 22 per cent in 13 years. During the same period Argentina has seen growth of 76 per cent, Peru 156 per cent, Chile 225 per cent and Colombia 333 per cent. And let’s not forget that during that time Brazil has hosted both a football World Cup and an Olympic Games.

So what gives?

“Crime” may well be the first word that pops into your head. Perhaps unfairly (steer clear of a handful of urban districts and you’re extremely unlikely to encounter problems), Brazil has a reputation for lawlessness. It also has one of the highest murder rates in the world. But then so does Mexico, which last year welcomed 39.3m overseas visitors (up 79 per cent since 2005).

Visas are another issue. Currently, Britons can visit Brazil with just their passport, but American, Canadian, Australian and Japanese travellers, among others, must all apply for a tourist visa. 

Furthermore, cheap flights to Brazil are often hard to find. A quick search on Skyscanner for flights from New York to Rio this summer (June-August) reveals that the lowest one-way fares cost around £350. Flights from LA to Tokyo, a journey of similar distance, can be found for as little as £250. This barrier is slowly being overcome, however. In March, Norwegian launched the first ever low-cost flights from Britain to Brazil, with one-way fares from £240.

Chris Moss, Telegraph Travel’s South America expert, highlights another factor: a lack of self-promotion. “Brazil is generally blind to non-Brazilian news and culture,” he explains. “A continent-sized country, it is somewhat inward looking and notorious for underinvesting in tourism promotion. It has never really pushed anything but Rio or, more recently, the Pantanal. It’s such a pity as it’s a wonderfully diverse country. I just came back from Sao Paulo and the art and architecture blew me away. But no one goes there!”

Sao Paulo Credit: GETTY

There’s no shortage of evidence for the benefits of self-promotion. Israel’s tourism ministry has forked out millions on marketing in the last year or two. Posters plugging trips to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem - with the slogan “two sunny cities, one break” - have adorned London buses and Tube trains, and its TV advert, featuring a cover of Bobby Hebb’s 1960s hit “Sunny”, has at times felt unavoidable. But it was money well spent. Jerusalem received around five million visitors in 2018 – a 37.5 per cent year-on-year leap, making it the fastest growing major city break destination in the world.

So can Brazil turn things around? It is certainly starting to try. As of June 17, US travellers will be allowed to stay in the Latin American country for up to 90 days without a visa. The move, which will save visiting Americans $44 per person (and a small amount of hassle), has been described as “one of the most important achievements of the Brazilian tourism industry in the last 15 years”, and is part of plans to boost annual arrivals to 12m by 2022.

“The highest gap [in the world] between potential in tourism, and what’s been realised so far, is Brazil,” Vinicius Lummertz, then president of the country’s tourist board, told an Associated Press reporter in 2017. Should it close the gap, the effect could be staggering.

Other countries waiting to be discovered

Brazil isn’t the only country still waiting to be discovered by the rest of the world. India has a similar reliance on domestic travellers, who account for 88 per cent of total tourism receipts. The country received 15.5m travellers in 2017, a remarkably small number for a nation with 36 World Heritage Sites and 1.34bn residents. More people went to Macau. But India is certainly on the up; back in 2005 it welcomed only 3.9m.

Even more reliant on home-grown tourists is Bangladesh. Just 2.6 per cent of its tourism revenue comes from the overseas market, and it receives barely 100,000 foreign travellers a year. A recent report claimed only five Italians visited the whole country in 2017. With its excellent trekking, fine beaches and tiger safaris, Bangladesh has been previously touted as the next big thing in travel. However, ongoing security fears, flooding and extreme poverty have kept all but the most intrepid travellers away. Even its government’s relatively paltry target of one million annual tourists has been dismissed as a “pipe dream”.

Only five Italians visited Bangladesh last year Credit: getty

Topping them all however, is Papua New Guinea. Domestic travellers account for 99.8 per cent of all tourism income in the far-flung Pacific nation, putting it ahead of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Burundi. “These nations often struggle to attract international tourists due to visa restrictions, geopolitical or security risks, lack of quality infrastructure and poor air connectivity.” explains the WTTC report. “This is the case for Papua New Guinea, Guinea, Libya, Bangladesh and Algeria.” That Brazil sits in the top 10 alongside nations like Libya further highlights just how remarkable its lack of foreign tourists is.

Which nations are most reliant on foreign tourists?

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find the likes of Thailand, Jamaica, Singapore and the UAE.

The report explains: “The reliance on domestic tourism varies significantly across continents, particularly in Asia. While India, China and the Philippines strongly rely on domestic tourism, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand sit at the other end of the spectrum. Only 21 per cent of Travel & Tourism spending in Thailand is attributed to domestic visitors with the remaining 79 per cent coming from international tourists. Still, most of these countries attract a significant number of international visitors, not only because of their well-developed air infrastructure and availability of low-cost airlines but also due to good rail, land or sea connectivity with other countries. Yet in certain cases, accommodation has been developed to satisfy international travellers’ preferences and budgets, in turn limiting lower cost options and serving as a brake in the expansion of domestic travel.”

So a balance between domestic and foreign tourists would appear to be preferable. In which case look no further than… the Netherlands, where 51 per cent of revenue comes from home-grown travellers, and 49 per cent from overseas. The Dutch get most things right, from cycling to tolerance – so what else did you expect?