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8 August 2016. On Thursday, 4 August 2016 alone, around 100 thousand tourists passed via Rio’s International Airport bringing a new level of excitement and movement to the city. It is difficult for the newly arrived to escape the feeling that a multicultural international party is about to start. The city, which normally receives about 1.5 million tourists per year via the airport has been largely remodelled to host the Olympic Games. Many view this time as an exciting opportunity to showcase a city, a country, and a culture to the entire world.
In answering this challenge, construction was initiated slightly after the bid was awarded in 2009 and it has since altered the urban structure of Rio. The transformation of the city includes the construction of a completely new neighbourhood to host the athletes and most of the Olympic arenas, but also the improvement of the public transportation system, the construction of new water treatment facilities, the expansion of the water distribution and sanitation network and the revitalization of the city centre. These changes, often presented as Olympic legacy, are not only about infrastructure for the games benefiting tourists but also represent an opportunity to improve city services and access for local residents.
Urbanisation and transportation
The first contact with the Olympic Games for locals has been often less pleasant. For many months prior to the Games, citizens of Rio or "cariocas" have had their lives turned upside down through this transformation and have come to expect significant changes, especially in the urbanisation and to transportation in the region.
The Olympic Games are mostly taking place in Barra da Tijuca, an upper middle class suburb, where the Olympic Park with its 1.18 million square meters has been realized from scratch. During construction, a community which lived in an informal settlement called Vila Autódromo was entirely displaced. Protests followed for many months.
A 33-year old designer and her pharmacist friend, Renata and Veronica, say that the remodelling of the city for the Olympic Games (and even before for the FIFA World Cup 2014), turned the region into a patchwork of permanent work-sites. As a consequence, the city is operating at its infrastructural maximum capacity: Kilometre-long traffic jams, for example are not uncommon.
Regina, a 60-year old housewife, on the other hand, says that that progress always comes at a price. Therefore, she has been waiting patiently for the promises made by politicians and planners since the Olympic bid to come true in the form of better public services for all the 6.5 million city’s citizens. Now, she says, the time has come to collect, but she worries about the quality and durability of these public work projects.
Infrastructure improvement for the games
Next to Barra da Tijuca, other parts of the city are hosting several Olympic events. These areas are now all connected by an integrated public transportation system that combines BRTS (buses operating on exclusive lanes), trams (in the city centre), metro and renewed trains. In addition, several new roads were built and existing ones enlarged. During the Games, in order to assure smooth logistics, all participants, executives and support staff of the Games (called "Olympic family") have an exclusive lane to drive to the different sites. This lane is taken off the existing road capacity and marked by a continuous green line.
Interestingly, the poor state of urban mobility was one of the major reasons why Rio failed to win an earlier Olympic bid. Its improvement became paramount to the Olympic Committee. This time, ambitious plans were envisioned and under a tight schedule, were just achieved in time. The new metro line, connecting the Zona Sul to Barra da Tijuca, was inaugurated for the exclusive use of Olympic family, but will be soon opened for the general public.
The BRT is a bus system that operates on express lanes (TransOeste, TransOlimpica and TransCarioca). In 2017, a new express BRT lane will be inaugurated: the TransBrasil. The exclusive lanes cut through traffic jams and considerably reduce travel times. An increasing amount of people use the BRT currently at a rate of 43,000 people a day – already overstretched to capacity. "We feel like canned sardines" says Paulo Augusto, a banker who uses BRT daily.
Revitalising the city centre
The whole port of Rio, by the city centre, including public squares has been revitalised including the construction of new museums, pedestrian exclusive areas, and is connected to the airports by light trams. The area, now known as "Porto Maravilha" (Wonder Port), is currently full of tourists and locals practicing sports, visiting the Museum of Tomorrow, and the Rio Art Museum across the street.
The area was not essential for the realisation of the Olympic Games and many people question the timing of an endeavour of this magnitude and cost simultaneously to all the rest of already ambitious, mandatory and expensive city transformation. Experts also question the possibility of gentrification of the area, with the intended attraction of 100 thousand housing units to "occupy" the centre, considered to be an underpopulated area due to the preponderance of offices. Companies in charge of revitalising the centre, earned the right to explore real estate projects in the future. With the urban changes and the valorisation of the area, it is likely that around 30 thousand current inhabitants will slowly be displaced, despite promises concerning social housing programs.
On a Sunday afternoon, one week before the games started, most restaurants along the coastal area and the city centre were already fully packed with people. The owner of one of these restaurants explained that he had to temporarily hire an additional staff of 40 during the summer months.
According to Embratur’s (Brazilian Institute for tourism) president, Vinícius Lummertz, the international events hosted by Brazil since 2007 (Pan American Games, Rio +20, Confederation Cup, World Cup and the Olympics) give visibility to the country and make it more competitive in the international tourism sector (Rio 2016, Governo Federal). This year, between 300 and 500 thousand foreign tourists are expected to visit the city for the events.
Opportunities for the local economy
Brazil in general, and the whole region of Rio in particular, could make use of the extra input of tourists in order to boost the economy which has been suffering from a long-lasting recession. According to a study done by Credit Suisse, the Brazilian economy is likely to suffer a retraction of 3.5% in 2016. In addition earlier this year, the governor of the state of Rio declared a state of calamity, due to the loss of state revenues related to decreasing oil prices, but also because the state did not collect R$ 138 billion in taxes due to exemptions granted to companies between 2008 and 2013. At the same time, the population complain that the governments’ generosity in terms of tax exemptions stands at odds with public expenditure cuts in salaries, pension payments and investments in public health and education.
The question arises if an international event, such as the Olympics, is capable to actually boosting the local and regional economy. The same Credit Suisse study shows, based on data from 14 former Olympic hosts that such an event does not necessarily reflect on economic growth, and most immediate gains are due to (mostly public) investments in infrastructure. Therefore, the Olympics pushes gross revenues up, but they do not guarantee financial profits or even a way out of the recession.
Influx of tourists
However, even if only for short period of time, the influx of foreign people created jobs especially in the service and tourism sectors - many young people will receive their first work opportunity related to the Games. In total, 37 thousand people will be working for the Olympics and 19 thousand for the Paralympics. Another 4 thousand temporary jobs have been indirectly created by the tourism sector. By the end of the Olympic Games, Rio’s economy will have received R$ 2.68 billion in tourism related expenses.
Daryl and Sabina, a Swiss-Brazilian couple who owns a bed and breakfast at Leme, up the hill by the entrance of Favela Babilonia (Babilonia Rio Hostel), say that the influx of tourists to Rio remains normally constant (their B&B has an occupancy rate of 30-50% during low season and 90-100% during the high season), but they got already 100% booked for the whole period of the Olympics and Paralympics more than a year ago. Besides other tourists, they are also hosting athletes’ families from Brazil, the Netherlands, and Germany.
Street vendors and owners of beach kiosks, who reputedly welcome tourists in the typical informal, friendly, and smiley carioca way, also expect to profit from this period: "Rio is already a well-known destination, but now people will see that Rio is much more than just Copacabana and the Cristo Redentor. All this Olympic area is close to kilometres of wonderful beaches and scenic mountain trails, and many other places for outdoor activities. My modest business will profit a lot from this moment, and I will get to know the world without even leaving my piece of paradise", says José, the vendor of mate iced tea who walks kilometres daily along Rio’s beaches.
The challenge now for Rio will be to capitalize more lastingly from this brief moment of Olympic exposure. Only by keeping attracting tourists all year round, more stable positions can be secured. This would especially benefit the young people, who have been especially trained for the event. If they fail to do so, the temporary created jobs will be lost, as well as the broader access to the formal market, and the effect of the Olympic Games risks to vanish much quicker than it took to produce the image in the heads of cariocas.
Read here part two of this series.
Dr. Vanessa Boanada is Academic Program Manager at the Centro Latinoamericano-Suizo.
photos: marchello74 - Fotolia.com, world2media - Fotolia.com