Regis St. Louis, The Daily Telegraph, March 12, 2012
The old jibe about Brazil being "the country of the future – and it always will be" can finally be laid to rest. Prince Harry, who visited the country last weekend as his four-country Diamond Jubilee Tour, saw firsthand the dramatic changes sweeping through the country. With a burgeoning middle-class and a booming economy – now larger than Britain's – the future so long promised for Latin America's giant has finally arrived.
New restaurants, bars and boutiques open with startling frequency in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and other major cities. The feeling of optimism is as prevalent as the ubiquitous string bikini (known locally as the fio dental, or dental floss) that graces Brazil's breathtaking beaches.
For visitors, it's an exciting time to be in Brazil, and nowhere is the country's transformation more dramatic than in Rio. In the last few years, new boutique hotels and "heritage" B&Bs have opened across the city, providing a much-needed alternative to the faded high-rises that line Copacabana Beach. In Ipanema, the high-profile Philippe Starck-designed Rio Fasano quickly became the hotel of choice for visiting starlets and wealthy jetsetters after it opened a few years ago. Its stylish bar, the Baretto-Londra pays homage to London, owner Rogerio Fasano's favourite city. On an evening tour, Prince Harry got a taste of Brazil's vibrant possibilities as Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes pointed out spots where Olympic events will be held.
Further afield, the booming economy has rippled across the Brazilian landscape, offering more for the visitor than ever. São Paulo is constantly reinventing itself, with stylish new nightspots (like Casa 92), imaginative restaurants (like Kaa, with its 435-square-meter vertical garden of Atlantic rainforest), fairytale-esque hotels (the classic Emiliano complete with rooftop helipad) and an ever-expanding metro system. With dramatic chalet-type retreats in the mountains, glittering getaways in beachside resorts like Buzios and even luxury lodges in the Amazon, Brazil offers a staggering new range of travel experiences.
Unsurprisingly, the nightlife is electrifying. The battered former red-light district of Lapa continues to host Rio's best live music scene inside beautifully restored mansions dating from the late 19th- and early 20th centuries. Classic samba spots - like the antique-filled Rio Scenarium - have withstood the test of time, while new gafieiras (samba clubs) open their doors every other week. Although cariocas (Rio residents) love a good beat no matter what its origin, they've always had a soft spot for samba. Up-and-coming performers like singer-songwriter Diogo Nogueira, who shared the stage with a gracious Prince Harry on Saturday, come from a long line of sambistas dating back to the early roots of Brazilian music.
Given all that Rio and Brazil have to offer, it's surprising that so few foreign visitors come here. In 2010, Brazil received some 5.2 million overseas visitors, a fraction of those received by France (76.8 million visitors) or the U.K. (28.1 million). The perception of high crime levels probably deters many.
The potential for growth is enormous - and obvious to anyone who's gazed out over the glittering beaches and rainforest-covered mountains atop one of Rio's many scenic overlooks. And the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 will be Brazil's chance to show the world it has more to offer than just street parties and first-rate football.
In order to stage these massive events successfully, Brazil is investing billions of reals into upgrading the country's ageing infrastructure. Some R$6.5 billion (about £2.3 billion) is earmarked towards upgrading the 12 airports around the country. Even more will be spent on improving roads, public transport and building or upgrading hotels. There are even plans to build a high-speed rail line between Rio and São Paulo, which will reduce travel time for the journey (of about 300 miles) to just 90 minutes. Unfortunately, the costly project is unlikely to be completed in time for the Olympics.
In Rio the biggest changes thus far have occurred along the waterfront. The beaches of the zona sul, from Copacabana all the way down to Leblon, have added new high-tech glass kiosks (complete with restaurant kitchens hidden below the sands) replacing ramshackle old drink stands that once littered the edge of the waterfront. The city has also invested in its orla digital (digital shoreline), which gives free wi-fi access to anyone on the beach between Leme and Leblon. Other states with popular beachfronts have imitated the plan, with wi-fi shoreline access available from Alagoas in the north (home to the photogenic Praia do Francês beach) down to Parana in Brazil's south.
Regardless of the great changes happening across the country, Brazil hasn't lost its unbridled joie de vivre, that infectious spirit of celebration that Prince Harry alluded to at a Saturday night event atop Sugarloaf Mountain when he said, "Everything about Rio makes you want to dance." Indeed, with the city's coffers full and the Olympics on the horizon, the revelry has reached fever pitch, with record-numbers attending the 400-odd street parades of Rio's recent Carnival.
All this joy and optimism bodes well for the Olympic showcase. But in a city of such stark contrasts, it's worth remembering that over one million residents live in favelas, or slums. Rio's notorious favelas, many of which are ruled by drug traffickers, have long been a sore point for the city - and a major security issue for the upcoming games. In years past, favelas were simply ignored or bulldozed out of existence. More recently, the city has sought to integrate them into the city, bringing much-needed services and infrastructure to these ad-hoc communities. Although the goals are laudable, the methodology is controversial, often involving full-scale police invasions to drive out the drug dealers and set up a permanent police post. Sadly, local residents are sometimes caught in the crossfire.
Over the weekend, Prince Harry visited Complexo do Alemão, one such favela that was taken over by police in 2010, and was treated to a song performed by a mixed-age group of students. They sang "Toda criança quer" ("Every child wants"), a hopeful song about brighter days ahead. Hope seemed to be in no short supply among the smiling youths of the favela. Whether the future will shine as brightly on the favelados (favelo residents) as it does on the oil-rich nation in which they live remains to be seen. But tourism provides one small-scale solution for the moment -- and local guides now show a trickle of visitors around some favela communities. Prince Harry has seen Brazil for himself, and seemed humbled by the warm reception. Plenty more Britons would do well to follow suit.
- Regis St. Louis is the author of the last four editions of the Lonely Planet guide to Rio de Janeiro, as well as the last three editions of the Brazil guide book.