Miami lures more wealthy Brazilians

Rife with cash from a booming economy and with a huge affinity for luxury, Brazilians are visiting South Florida in droves and spending millions of dollars on vacation condominiums, clothes, jewelry, furniture, cars and art, all of which are much less expensive here than in Brazil.

As a thank-you, Floridians are creating innovative ways to make the Brazilians happy and to encourage them to keep dipping into their wallets. Real estate agents, for example, have cobbled together one-stop-shopping firms that offer interior decorating and concierge services as well as legal advice and visa help. Some agents have even opened offices in Brazil to simplify the process.

Aware that Brazilians will not spend freely unless they feel at home, shopping malls have enticed them by hiring Portuguese-speaking sales clerks to proffer Dolce & Gabbana dresses and Hublot watches. Even Target has posted help-wanted signs in Portuguese. Brazilian restaurants are also flourishing across Miami, including a popular chain from Brazil - Giraffas - that includes Brazilian cheese bread and special cuts of meat on the menu.

While the United States and Europe continue to grapple with recession, Brazil’s economy gallops forward, powered by exports, a growing manufacturing base and abundant natural resources. Unemployment in October was 5.8 percent, and this week it passed Britain to become the sixth-largest economy in the world.

Brand-conscious Brazilians love to use their money - cash, above all — ranking first per capita in spending among the top 10 groups of foreign visitors to the United States, a list that includes the French, British and Germans. In all, 1.2 million Brazilians visited in 2010 and spent $5.9 billion, or $4,940 for each visitor. Only travelers from India and China outspent the Brazilians, but far fewer visit, and they are not among the top 10.

The Commerce Department expects the total number of Brazilian visitors will be even higher this year. Their economic impact is so powerful that the travel, restaurant, lodging and retail industries, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been lobbying Washington to let Brazilians travel here without visas, as the citizens of the European Union countries do. In November, the State Department agreed to add more consular officers to speed up the visa process.

American Airlines now has 52 flights a week to Miami from five cities in Brazil, and has applied for more routes. Because it receives the highest number of visitors from Brazil, Florida has benefited most from the country’s new wealth and the expansion of its middle class. Most of the Brazilians who come to the United States visit Florida, and in the first nine months of this year, an estimated 1.1 million Brazilians spent $1.6 billion in the state, an increase of nearly 60 percent from the previous year. Among foreign nations, only Canada sends more visitors to Florida.

The Brazilians’ money has helped resuscitate the real estate market in Miami. Foreigners account for more than half of all property sales in Miami, and condominium towers that once sat empty are quickly selling out. Brazilians here slip into the Latin American lifestyle — late dinners and familiar fashions, food and music. And the relative safety of the United States is a bonus. Rio de Janeiro’s murder rate, while declining, is nearly triple of that in Miami.

This zest for spreading cash is the main reason why the visa battle is beginning to resonate on Capitol Hill. There are only four American Consular offices in Brazil, a country almost the size of the United States. To get a visa, many Brazilian must travel long distances to be interviewed at a consular office. Despite the onerous process, there were 820,000 visa applications this year, with an average wait of 50 days — too long, tourism officials say.

Lobbyists are pressuring Congress and the State Department to change the process. Barring that, they are pushing for more consular offices and a pilot program that would screen visa applicants through video conferences. Seven bills are pending in Congress on the visa issue.

In the meantime, tourism officials say, Europe siphons away a large number of Brazilians because traveling there is so much easier. Western Europe receives 52 percent of all Brazilians who travel abroad and the United States 29 percent.

adapted from The International Herald Tribune