Brazil, Drop the Visa Requirement and Let the Gringos In!

An American passportAccording to official Central Bank numbers released by Embratur, Brazil’s tourism authority, in January 2006 alone, international tourists in Brazil were responsible for a record US$ 402 million. This represented an 11.16% increase from the US$ 360 million in December of 2005, and 17.88% more than in January of 2005.

The results brought about optimism and reflections from the Minister of Tourism, Walfrido dos Mares Guia, who believes the country can reach US$ 6.3 billion in 2006. With a better value to the Brazilian currency, the real, Brazilians have, on the other hand, also increased international spending. But there is more money being spent in Brazil by tourists, than Brazilian tourists are spending outside of Brazil.

Other numbers are impressive. The Brazilian Airport Authority estimates that the number of foreign visitors in Brazil will be between 5.4 and 5.5 million in 2005. Embratur shall release the exact numbers soon.

Rio de Janeiro has become a big favorite among foreign celebrities. Calvin Klein, Naomi Campbell, Bono Vox, are only a few international big names with a crush in the city. Gay tourists, a group known for bringing up numbers, have also picked Brazil, notably Rio and Salvador as favorite spots.

But according to numbers released by the American government, 61.5 million Americans travelled to foreign countries in 2004, with a total spending estimated in US$ 64.5 billion. 17.5 million Americans went to Mexico, 14.2 to Canada, 14.2 to other countries and 10.3 to Europe. Compared to these numbers, Brazil is missing a substantial piece of the cake.

With these good numbers in hand, Mares Guia sent Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva a new motion that alters the Law of Reciprocity on visa for foreign citizens. The Minister wants to end the need for visas for American tourists, a controversial, if not sore subject.

Because of the increasing number of illegal Brazilian immigrants in the US, it has become very hard for Brazilians to visit the US. To be granted a visa, Brazilians have to wait months for interviews, which they have to attend with endless documentation to show stable and solid reasons to go back home.

Many Brazilians are denied visas for no apparent reason. Only the wealthy seem to have no problems, as they own companies, and/or properties, and are able to exhibit high numbers in their bank accounts, a guarantee of return.

Those who defend the new motion, like Mares Guia, put sentimental solidarity aside and think numbers, which can make the economy stronger and bring growth to the country. They argue the existing law blocks a greater growth, when it requires reciprocity, meaning if Brazilians need visas to come to the US, Americans should have visas to go to Brazil.

Mares Guia gives a blow when he points out that the existing law dates back to 1980, when Brazil was still under the military dictatorship, and its mere existence is prejudicial to tourism. The Ministry of Foreign Relations, however, defends the reciprocity and President Lula will have the final word whether or not the motion will be sent to Congress.

Mexico started requiring visas from Brazilians, pressured by the US, because of the high number of Brazilian citizens crossing the borders to the US through Mexico and because of that and according to the law, Mexicans now need visas to go to Brazil.

Relatively speaking, very few Americans choose Brazil as a tourism destination. In 2004, 706,000 Americans visited Brazil, and when compared to the 61.5 million Americans who traveled abroad, the number represents a very low percentage of 1.2 only. They spent during that time around US$ 64.5 billion.

And this is not the worst part. For years Brazil has been visited by 700,000 Americans every year, a number that, if does not get any less, it does not get any higher either. If the law changes and Americans are allowed in Brazil without visas, the number can quickly increase to 2 million.

Numbers versus national pride? Numbers versus a sense of dignity? Also whose job is to determine changes in the law, the Ministry of Tourism, or the Ministry of Foreign Relations? The first claims it is theirs, as they work to increase the numbers of international tourists in Brazil and, using the example of other countries in the world, and to place the industry on a higher level, as it is a multiplying door to bring wealth to the country, jobs opportunities and development. The latter who sees the law as important in the history of Brazilian diplomatic relations, think it is their job.

One may conclude that the Law of Reciprocity will change very soon. If Brazil can have more American tourists and therefore more dollars coming in, it is only natural to assume that not only the political aspects of the case shall be considered, but the economic aspects as well. And, as we all know too well, numbers place a weight on this kind of decision, and in this case, maybe they should.

According to the Minister of Justice, Luiz Paulo Telles Barreto, the tendency is to have a law that gives the country the freedom to choose which foreign countries should be granted the right to have its citizens visit Brazil without the need for a visa. But, according to the Brazilian press, the Minister also said that the present law has its importance for the Ministry of Foreign Relations’ work.

A very comfortable and diplomatic approach, or maybe a reminder that yes, let the changes come, they are needed, but let us keep in mind the needs of international politics as well.

Clara Angelica Porto is a Brazilian bilingual journalist living in New York. She went to school in Brazil and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Clara is presently working as the English writer for The Brasilians, a monthly newspaper in Manhattan. Comments welcome at clara.angelica@gmail.com.

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