Rio’s tourism paradox

Despite a city with beaches, beautiful landscapes and a perfect climate, Rio has a tourist problem. And with the world’s eyes turning, it needs to fix it!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

There’s a strange mood in the air of Rio de Janeiro. I can’t quite shake the odd feeling as I spend a day jumping between some of Brazil’s most-famous landmarks.

Even in the late afternoon, as I’m sitting and sipping cocktails on the beach, the uncomfortable aura persists. It gets worse that evening on the hunt for a restaurant for dinner.

It takes me a while to work out what’s wrong but eventually I hit upon the problem – it’s the paradox of Rio as a tourist destination.

It’s a place that has the right to call itself one of the greatest cities in the world… but it’s also one of the most-dangerous and inconvenient ones for visitors.

Rio de Janeiro tourism

The beauty of Rio becomes evident from the first moment you set eyes on it.

Built around the water, with the striking mountains of green growing out of the metropolitan hub, it has merged nature with development in a way so natural that you can’t imagine it any other way.

Rio is an urban jungle with an emphasis on the jungle.

From the golden sands of the beach, to the lagoon reflecting the surrounding mountains, to the tangles of green forests that hang from the stone cliffs in every direction.

It should feel like a magical world with abundant opportunity for fun and relaxation. But it’s not.

Rio de Janeiro tourism

Rio has a dark side and it hangs over the city and its visitors like a menacing grey cloud. Put simply, it’s the fear of crime.

Put less succinctly, it’s the uneasiness that you can never let your guard down and relax completely because you never know if there’s a threat around the next corner.

People always warn you before going to Rio about the crime. It could be a pickpocketing or it could be a violent robbery.

One person I met was mugged by two teenagers who, in place of a weapon, bit him aggressively on his arm until he handed over his wallet and camera.

It’s not uncommon to hear tales of machetes and guns being pulled on tourists if they end up on the wrong street block at the wrong time of day.

Rio de Janeiro tourism
Rio de Janeiro tourism

It’s sad that in a city with so much beauty you feel afraid to carry a nice camera with you because it makes you a target for a robbery. But that’s the reality of Rio and it’s a reality that needs to be addressed very quickly before Brazil presents its jewel of a city to the rest of the world.

In the next few years, Rio de Janeiro will have the planet’s eyes affixed upon it.

It will host the Catholic World Youth Day in 2013, the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016.

Visitors, athletes, media, heads of state will all come to the city – but it doesn’t seem like the city is prepared.

Rio de Janeiro tourism

The other big challenge for Rio, and an aspect of the city that also leaves you ill at ease, is the infrastructure for tourism.

It’s chaotic, inefficient, and poorly-designed. It struggles badly under a busy summer day so who knows how it will cope during the influx of global gatherings?

Take, for example, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, high upon Corcovado mountain. It’s probably the most famous landmark and tourist attraction in Rio but the process of visiting it is feels almost as difficult as it would have been to build the forty metre high icon.

Rio de Janeiro tourism

First, you must get a taxi to the base of the mountain. Then you could choose to take the skytrain to the top, although it leaves so infrequently you normally have to wait several hours for an available carriage and there’s no way to book in advance.

The other option is to take a shuttle bus to a point halfway up the mountain where you have to queue for a few hours (during peak times) to get on another shuttle to the top of the peak.

With either method you choose, you will end up on a crowded platform where you’ll be fighting with the hordes of other visitors to try to get a photo or a view from a decent angle.

I suppose that’s the problem with being a world city – infrastructure will strain under the demand from tourists, the poor and desperate elements of the population will look to take advantage of the wealthier, and everything will be judged in relation to global standards.

Rio de Janeiro tourism
Rio de Janeiro tourism

As I sat by the beach in Ipanema one afternoon, capriniha in hand, and looked out at the crowd of umbrellas and tanned scantily-clad bodies, I realised that the paradox of Rio isn’t stopping anyone from coming here. It’s not denting the tourist numbers – and they’re sure to increase over the coming years.

But it does affect the mood for many visitors and, in some ways, Brazil should care more about its reputation than anything else.


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12 thoughts on “Rio’s tourism paradox”

  1. am glad you didnt have a negative experience in Brasil. Most people who go there come back with a bad story to tell. Getting rid of crime is very hard especially due to the large number of poor people.

  2. Hi Mike!

    I just wanted to say thanks again for submitting this to the BT Blog Carnival! (It will be interesting to see how Rio evolves over the next few decades…) Also, this article has been included in the 10th BT Blog Carnival which was published today.

    If you could retweet, stumble, or “Like” this edition of the blog carnival, I would really appreciate it. 🙂 It would also help people discover your article, too!

    Thanks again 🙂

  3. Oh Rio, the marvelous city. I am interested in seeing the changes it has undergone in preparation for Fifa and the Olympics since I spent 4 month living there back in 2008.I will find out this December as I revisit.
    I think it can handle the crowds, as it regularly deals with the influx for Carnival, efficency is another matter for debate. Crime, yes that is another beast to subdue altogether and only time will tell. My best advice for tourists is don’t travel up, typically you’ll be heading towards the favelahs. Its not foolproof but outside the typical tourist warnings it can improve your chances of having a safe and enjoyable visit.

    • That’s good advice about heading down and not up. But crime will still seep into every part of the city, it seems. I just wish there was a way for Rio to feel safer and more comfortable. A lot of it is just about the perception of the city, but it stops you from relaxing completely, I think.

  4. I thought only us locals felt that way. It is sad, so sad to feel like this on such a wonderful city. I have traveled to many cities in the US and Europe, and no place in the world is as beautiful as Rio, not even close. You can see beautiful architecture in Europe, but that’s just buildings someone put there. Rio brings it all together like no other place, and the people here are so eager to please.

    If we ever solve the violence problem in Rio, it will be the best place in the world to live.

  5. Really insightful post! I think Brazil is such a diverse (and huge!) country that there’s lots of potential to better develop various regions and promote them to tourists. Hopefully the upcoming FIFA World Cup will spur some of this development.

    • Yeah, between the World Cup and the Olympics, there’ll be a lot of work put into Rio. It would be a shame if it lost its distinct personality… but I think there are lots of things that could be improved that would make it a much nicer city for everyone!


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