By Nestor Bailly, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – As the holiday season approaches, Rio fills with tourists and revelers ready to take in the Marvelous City’s legendary New Year’s Eve and Carnival parties. However, this year the festivities are tainted by the violence of past weeks, which begun as drug traffickers attacked police and civilians prompting an enormous military and police response by the city, state, and federal government.
These latest security issues raised questions about whether Rio is prepared to host the mega-events of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, but more immediately if Rio is a safe city for both average citizens and tourists.
Much of Zona Norte (North zone) shut down during the height of the violence, with many malls and stores normally open late closing at 7PM. When buses started being attacked, many commuters stayed home and the metro was filled to capacity with those avoiding the roads.
Even in Zona Sul some were afraid to go out at night. “The streets were deserted after dark,” said Ingrid Laforge of Casa do Caminho Language Center in Ipanema, which teaches mostly to foreigners.
Luxury shops along Rua Visconde de Pirajá withdrew products and promotional posters from their display windows, and a bomb scare in General Osório Square set tourists on edge. “If that had been a real bomb, we call could have been hurt,” worried an unnamed woman from France present at the site of the scare.
Tourism is enormously important for the local economy. The state of Rio de Janeiro has 24 percent of all of Brazil’s accommodation establishments, and 41 percent of the entire nation’s tourist guides, according to 2007 data from EMBRATUR. Rio de Janeiro city itself hosted over 1.5 million foreign guests in 2008, 30.7 percent of Brazil’s total tourist arrivals.
Fortunately it seems last week’s violence has not had a large impact on tourism. Antonio Pedro Figueira de Mello, President of Riotur, the City of Rio de Janeiro Tourism Authority, assured in a statement that “despite the recent [events] in the city, tourism was not affected. The hotels in Rio for the holiday season, for example, continue [their] occupation rate of 90 percent equal to the period prior to the attacks, with the promise to reach 94 percent by mid-December. This is proof that the hotels suffered no impact, in contrast, the tourism market is heated and sales of package tours are up.”
Mr. de Mello clarified RioTur’s full support for the government’s crackdown on gangs, saying the work of the UPPs has “paid off” and that there is an “intense and well-planned security policy, achieving positive results for Rio.” He is confident in Rio de Janeiro’s first “clear policy of Public Safety” and in an email with EXAME.com, guaranteed the safety of tourists.
“For the people that live here, yes, the violence worried them, especially those who commute from the north,” said Andressa of Che Lagarto Hostel in Copacabana. “But the tourists don’t really know what is happening. The south is safe so business is good and rooms are full. Our guests aren’t bothered and we haven’t seen any shock in them.”
Ms. Laforge echoed this, saying that all of Casa do Caminho’s students had attended classes and even the teachers who live in Zona Norte made it to work. During a recent weekend visit to Lapa, she noted that for the revelers and sambistas, the rain put more of a damper on festivities than the threat of violence.