Rio tourism: Any lessons for Honolulu?
By Sumner LaCroix
A trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, can be a fantastic experience — as long as you're not a victim of street violence or theft.
The crime problems in this incredibly beautiful tropical beach city are the stuff of legends worldwide and show how difficult it is to establish secure conditions for residents and tourists in one of the most unequal societies on the planet.
Because of these problems, it is easy to dismiss Rio as a city of favelas (slums), drug lords, prostitution and violence. That's the Rio depicted in "City of God," the shockingly violent 2003 feature film nominated for four Oscars.
But that's a big mistake! Rio is not nicknamed "Cidade Maravilhoso" (Wonderful City) for nothing. Despite its problems, roughly 2 million foreign tourists and 5 million domestic tourists visited Rio in 2003. What brought them there? Many of the same things that bring tourists to Honolulu: beautiful beaches, sun, surf, warm water, a stew of cultures, samba (hula) traditions and festivals, and the great people of Brazil (Hawai'i).
Rio and Honolulu are the rare "cities on the beach," and both could learn a great deal from each other.
Rio's roughly 5.9 million people (and 14.4 million in the metropolitan area) are spread out over self-contained neighborhoods separated by a lagoon and short, steep mountains. Tourists usually flock to the hotels, condo-hotels and condominiums located in two side-by-side rich neighborhoods set against the ocean: Ipanema and Copacabana.
In both neighborhoods, a long multilane thoroughfare runs between the beach and an almost continuous line of up-scale hotels and condominiums. While this strip is somewhat similar to Waikiki, Rio's beachside boulevards are not shopping streets like Kalakaua Avenue.
Ipanema and Copacabana, however, are alive with activity. On Sundays, one direction of Rio's beach boulevard is closed to traffic and opened to overflowing crowds of joggers, bicyclists, skateboarders and inline skaters until 6 p.m. The beaches are packed with soccer fields and volleyball courts that bring thousands of young Cariocas — the residents of Rio — to the shore.
By contrast, there are just a couple of beach volleyball courts in Waikiki, no places to throw the American football around, and almost no volleyball classes on the beach for Hawai'i's keiki. The mecca of volleyball in the United States doesn't even have a beach volleyball stadium!
Yes, there are surfing lessons and outrigger canoe rides on some stretches of Waikiki's beaches, and one can throw a Frisbee or football in Kapi'olani Park. And though a portion of Kalakaua Avenue is closed one Sunday each month for "Brunch on the Beach," the overall activity pales compared with Rio.
The Rio beach also is packed with licensed vendors, renting or selling everything from beach chairs, umbrellas, sandwiches, beer and bathing suits, to on-beach massages and tattoos. On beautiful days, there are vendors interrupting you regularly and, yes, they do disrupt the overall experience sometimes.
However, it's not surprising that a city with a large poor population (Rio) would allow large numbers of vendors on the beach, and it's important to remember that the products they are licensed to sell are complementary with the beach experience.
By contrast, in Waikiki a few licensed vendors inside fixed installations sell junk food and soft drinks. Sitting and lying down on the beach are permitted. Not much else is.
Why the differences? The major factor is surely the size of the beach. Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are roughly three to four times as large as the Waikiki beach, and their larger size allows for the activities that make beach life in Rio a wildly fun experience.
Waikiki once had a much deeper beach, but the ruinous neglect of three successive Honolulu governments has left us with just a thin strip of sand. Only the stories told by aging beachboys remind us of the many activities that enlivened Waikiki in the 1950s and 1960s.
Luckily, the City and County of Honolulu is beginning a project to enlarge Waikiki Beach — the city's prime asset — by pumping the sand that has drifted out onto the reef back onshore. Assuming success in this effort (economists always assume something), the new enhanced bigger beach will, it is hoped, motivate city officials and residents into thinking about the overall experience of the many different types of tourists in Waikiki.
Perhaps it's time to rethink the city's prohibitionist policies on food and alcohol sales at the beach; to add more sports activities to the beachfront area; to allow more outdoor cafes and restaurants near the beach; to encourage private business to provide more parking garages for residents visiting Waikiki; and, most importantly, to begin to limit traffic on Kalakaua Avenue more frequently.
The real question is: Do the residents of Honolulu want to have a four- or five-lane highway running by what we hope will become a majestic stretch of beach, or do we want a fully reinvigorated beach experience that brings locals and tourists together in a big way?
Anyone who has visited a beach alive with activity, or who remembers Hawai'i's old days, knows the answer to this question.
By the way, Rio also could gain from closing or restricting use of its beachfront highway.
And what can Rio learn from Honolulu? A lot, but just one thought here. Build more bathroom facilities at the beaches ... which the Rio government is now doing, constructing subterranean bathrooms on Copacabana Beach to help prepare the city for the July 2007 Pan-American Games.
And by the way, is Honolulu gearing up to host the Pan-Pacific Island games?
Just a thought.