By Stephanie Foden, Contributing Reporter
SALVADOR, BRAZIL – An estimated nine million tourists will flock to Salvador and Bahia this year to get a taste of local Carnival culture or relax on one of the city’s famous beaches, but the boom in Brazil’s Northeast is serious business. Bringing in an estimated R$5 billion a year, the country’s third most visited city is keen to make the most of 2014’s World Cup opportunities and develop the tourism industry to its full potential.
With direct international flights to Europe bringing in more than just the passing Brazil tourists, locals and expatriates alike have looked to seize on the opportunities that the expanding market continues to bring. Now, not unlike in Rio, you can find a thriving scene of expats who have set up guesthouses, tour companies and restaurants.
One such businessman is Charles Butler, the British-born owner of Pelourinho’s Hotel Redfish. “I opened here in 2003. This was the boom time in tourism in Salvador when Pelourinho [Salvador’s historic center] felt like the party capital of the world, and I had a few years running at almost eighty percent the whole year round. There was no low season,” he told The Rio Times.
It hasn’t always been so straightforward, however, and the crisis in Europe and resulting flattening of the market meant he had to look elsewhere. At the same time, more competition and some questionable political moves combined to made for a tough period.
“Since the financial crash in 2007-2008, things haven’t been so good. My market was almost exclusively foreigners and they didn’t have the money anymore.”
To compound the problems, three years ago, and citing environmental concerns, the local authorities removed all the barracas (beach huts) from the urban beaches rather than upgrading them. With no infrastructure, the picturesque urban beaches became quiet and less secure. “The beach barracas were as important as the church and the football teams, and they were bulldozed,” recalls American tour guide Ben Paris.
Signs of a reversal in fortune have come in the form of a new, state-of-the-art football stadium and the arrival of a new mayor, ACM Neto. From a prominent, right-wing family, Neto took office in January and Butler hopes he will maximize the opportunities that the global media spotlight will bestow upon his city.
“Who knows, with the right political will power, it could again be the place to visit,” said a hopeful Butler. “The World Cup is coming, I’m already ninety percent booked, we have a newish mayor who couldn’t be worse than the last one, and is making the right noises, and we will have a new governor next year.”
Neto has just begun a project to reconstruct the tourist-friendly Barra neighborhood in an attempt to reinvigorate Salvador’s tourism industry. The rejuvenation, planned to to create a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly coastline, is due to be completed before the 2014 World Cup at a cost of over R$111 million.
A series of some hundred free cultural events was announced last month to take place across Salvador between 2014-2017 under the Mayor’s new slogan ‘Salvador – Feel The Difference’. “I would say that after nine difficult months… that the child has been born,” Neto said at the launch, suggesting that now is the time for Salvador to earn its place as Brazil’s third-favorite city and bring the beaches and historic sites like Pelourinho back to their tourist-grabbing best.