There are few cities in the world where you could bathe under a waterfall and be home again in 15 minutes or where you could play a game of beach volleyball in your lunch hour.
But you can in Rio de Janeiro, arguably the sexiest city to host the Olympic Games come 2016.
The Brazilian government is pinning its hopes on the Games and the football World Cup in 2014 to boost tourism.
For a country blessed with stunning beaches and tropical landscapes, rich cultural diversity and welcoming locals, Brazil remains fairly low on the list of international holiday destinations.
The distance, language barrier and reputation for violence may have kept some Europeans away, but plenty is being done to raise Brazil’s visibility.
Some R$7.4 billion (£2.3bn) is being spent on improving airports at the 12 host World Cup cities and a further R$16 billion (£5bn) on hotels, public transport and roads, and training for tourism staff, with up to R$40 billion (£12.6bn) in total across both events.
Flavio Dino, president of Brazilian tourist board Embratur, hopes tourist numbers will rise from over five million last year to ten million by the Olympics. Currently, more than 60 per cent of tourists visit Brazil for one thing – its beaches.
“Brazil is known for being a party country – we’re proud of that – but a big objective is to show the diversity of the culture and diversify our tourist base,” Mr Dino explains.
I don’t think you have to convince anyone to come to Brazil – it’s magnetic
Rio, Foz do Iguaçu and São Paulo are Brazil’s most visited cities, but the sporting events should give the country the opportunity to show off the assets of another ten, very different cities.
“Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Porto Alegre and Cuiaba see very few foreign travellers, but have great potential,” says Regis St Louis, co-ordinating author of the Lonely Planet guide to Brazil. “Cuiaba is near great wildlife in the Pantanal, Porto Alegre is home to the gaucho culture, while Curitiba is a model of sustainability. Belo Horizonte has some great museums though remains virtually unknown to foreign travellers.”
In Rio, “green” building initiatives are under way, including the Museum of Sound and Image, and the renovation of the public library into a state-of-the-art facility, which will apply initiatives, such as reusing rainwater, air-quality management and solar energy.
“We’re transforming Rio into a more cosmopolitan city and targeting a more cultured tourist,” explains Adriana Rattes, culture secretary for Rio. “Rio’s economy is growing faster than Brazil’s, led by the oil and technology industries.”
Ms Rattes adds that the library regeneration will be the main hub of a network of “park” libraries being implemented.
Such plans bode well for Brazil’s World Cup and Olympic legacies; if successfully executed, they will serve Brazilians in the long run. But the diversity of the host cities and the redevelopment of Rio will certainly attract a more cultured, adventurous, affluent and family-oriented visitor.
Tamara Heber-Percy, co-founder of Mr and Mrs Smith Hotels, says the boutique hotel market is thriving, with local chain Fasano set to open in Salvador in 2013 and Trancoso in 2015.
“La Suite and La Maison in Rio are particularly interesting because they’re not in touristy areas. The owners are opening a [third] hotel called Le Paris in Rio’s historic quarter. It’s a surprising area, but there’s a feeling of blossoming in Brazil,” she says. “I’ve noticed a lot of beach-front villas. It’s becoming more of a family destination.”
The entire real estate market in Brazil is booming, according to Ricardo Mader Rodrigues, executive vice president of Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels in Brazil.
“There is good financing available for residential property and office buildings. Last year, we saw double-digit growth in the hotel sector,” he says. “We’re working on several hotel projects over the next three years targeting the middle class. In São Paulo, we’re working with three upscale hotels for business travellers, while Recife, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre all have huge business potential.”
And what of the Brazilians themselves? “They’re excited about the way people are looking at Brazil, about the World Cup and the Olympics,” says Claire Rigby, editor of Time Out São Paulo. “Brazilians are quite modest about Brazil, but there’s a nice, quiet kind of pride about it all.”
With their charismatic, welcoming nature, the locals are an advertisement in themselves for the country. “I found that the Paulistanos [natives of São Paulo] are the easiest people to make friends with,” says Ms Rigby. “I don’t think you have to convince anyone to come to Brazil – it’s magnetic.”