Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Welcome to Brazil...Or Not

American Airlines launched a thrice-weekly nonstop flight Dec. 16 between its home base in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and to show off its business-class service and introduce U.S. journalists to the big, vibrant home of samba and football and the Girl from Ipanema, AA decided to do a short media familarization trip.

I was invited to participate. I said sure, excited to be going. It would be my first trip to Rio and only my second to Brazil, which is hosting the summer Olympic Games in 2016 and soccer's World Cup in 2014, enormously popular events sure to attract scads of foreign tourists.

But first I had to get a visa, a routine matter, usually. It's a piece of documentation I have secured many times in nations around the world. The fee, $140 USD and non-refundable, seemed a little steep, but the Brazilian embassy in Washington, D.C. explained that was because it is the equivalent sum that the United States charges Brazilians to visit the United States. This tit-for-tat business seems a lot like schoolchildren kicking dirt on one another in the schoolyard, and it might be nice if one of them rose above it and showed how to behave hospitably, but since that isn't on, I thought OK.

That's when my problems began. I went to the consular Web site, filled out the online application form and clicked on the calendar to make the required appointment to submit my documentation in person. Clunk! Although it was December 21, 2010, the first available appointment was on Jan. 12, 2011, the day before the Jan. 13 trip starts. No problem, I thought, I'll pay an extra fee to expedite the visa. Nope. Brazil does not offer an expediting fee in the U.S.

Flummoxed, I went to both of the U.S. public relations firms representing American and the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau, which were co-hosting the journey. They suggested contacting commercial visa-service agencies they knew in New York or Dallas to speed things up.

But there is a jurdisdictional problem in doing that, due to Brazilian regulations; I learned I would have to work through an agency located in the consular region where I live - in my case, Northern California. So, I went to the Web sites for two national agencies that have San Francisco branch offices. At the Travisa site, I discovered the application would take 10 to 20 business days; that didn't give me enough time. headed its section on Brazil in red text that read: "Due to a new software system installed by the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco, there are technical issues which are resulting in extreme restrictions with travel submissions to the consulate per day.''

Curses, foiled again.

E-mails flew back and forth between yours truly and the PRs, who very much wanted to be helpful, and tried to be. A fellow, Brazilian, from the Rio CVB suggested going to the consulate ahead of the appointment, telling them who I am (the new King of Pop, I mused, or at least King of Travel Writers); he felt certain they would get right on it. I took the first leg of the four-hour, 70-mile round trip ride on public transport from my home, took a number in the consulate's attractive, well-lit waiting room and when I got to the application window was told I would need a letter of invitation. I pointed out my letter of invitation from American Airlines.

"It needs to be a Brazilian entity,'' I was told.

I showed the Rio daily schedule I was given on Rio CVB letterhead.

"That's just an itinerary,'' I was told. "You need a letter.''

This was the first time I heard from any source that I needed a letter of invitation from Brazil.

Was Kafka Brazilian? I wondered. And did I somehow miss it?

E-mails flew some more. Yesterday, I got a voice message from a person on the consulate staff who didn't give her name, instructing me to show up this morning between 9 and 11 a.m., so processing of my visa could begin. Finally! Once again, I embarked on the four-hour, 70-mile round trip journey. I strolled in, a VIP. But wait a minute, not so fast.

The lady from the consulate who greeted supplicants - I mean, visa applicants - asked if I had an appointment. Certainly, I replied, showing her my printout for my Jan. 12 appointment while explaining that I had received a phone call telling me to come in right away. "I'm sorry, sir,'' she said. "You don't have an appointment.''

"I was invited, and told to come here today by the consulate,'' I said. She shook her head no. "I was!''

"I'm a journalist,'' I added. She shrugged.

"I need to talk to somebody,'' I said.

No can do, she replied in so many words. Nor could I take a seat in the waiting room. I didn't belong there. I didn't have an appointment. I could leave the premises. I left, embarking on the final leg of the four-hour ... well, you've heard that part.

I won't be going back, and thus won't be going to Brazil. I'll miss what will most likely be a superior new service from AA. A few days ago, not seeing more of Brazil would have sorely disappointed me. Now, it's fine.

The moral of the story: I'm not saying don't go to Brazil. Your experience may be very different from mine. I will say this: Be careful and be prepared. Start preparing well ahead of time. I would have done this myself, save for the inconvenient fact that I was traveling successively in Spain, Japan and China in the several months before the planned trip to Rio and had to have my passport with me. I couldn't leave it for an indeterminate time at a consulate.

Brazil is a big, developing, vibrant country with big ideas for itself and about itself. As mentioned at the top of this post, it will be hosting thousands of foreign visitors, many of them Americans, who will be eager to see the Olympics and the World Cup, and enjoy the famous beaches and landmarks of Rio such as Sugar Loaf Mountain. Brazil should be making it easy for travelers, including journalists, to visit. Instead, it's making it hard - ironically so, because almost every Brazilian I have met personally has been welcoming and warm.

If my experience is anything to go by, this proud, ambitious country has a long way to go before it is ready to welcome travelers, especially to world-class events. Here's hoping it gets there soon.


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  3. Do you think you had a hard time? Try getting a US Visa being a Brazilian. Trust me, your problems above would sound like a walk in the park. You can multiply all the problems you had by 10 and in the end, after spending a lot of money and your precious time, your VISA is denied for a comic or stupid reason most of the time...
    Please, there is NO COUNTRY in the world less welcoming to tourists and visitors when applying for a VISA than the USA. Sorry, That's what it is.

  4. I would suspect that if you were a Brazilian trying to get a visa to the US you would have more difficulties than you described. You're right, Brazil is a proud country, so they are treating American the way Brazilians are treated by the US Consulate (actually, probably slightly better.) I carry a German passport and can hop on a plane to Brazil any time I like without a visa, because Brazilians can hop a plane to Germany at any they like without a visa (but of course, the Brazilians can't take that new AA service to Germany from Brazil without a US visa, because unlike practically every other country in the world, one has to clear US Immigration just to TRANSIT the US.)

  5. I've got to agree with the comments here, unfortunately. I've traveled around the world for pleasure, and have been to Brazil 8 times--and have visited the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco twice (to apply for, then renew my visa). I'm embarrassed at the way the US Government treats upstanding, professional Brasileros who want to visit the U.S. I have several friends there who would love to visit the U.S., but for various reasons, my government refuses to grant them a tourist visa. So, though it's truly unfortunate that both countries act in such an immature and bureaucratic manner with each other, it doesn't surprise me that you experienced the difficulty you did when trying to obtain a visa. We can only hope that things improve in the coming years before Brazil welcomes so many international visitors--including lots of Americans.

  6. I think this is the key:
    This tit-for-tat business seems a lot like schoolchildren kicking dirt on one other in the schoolyard, and it might be nice if one of them rose above it and showed how to behave hospitably, (...)
    I also think that the US consulates in Brazil are much more prepared for the visa process than the Brazilian consulates in the US for the other way around.

  7. David, I totally agree with your comments, getting a Brazilian visa might be totally annoying, tons of papers to fill in, several visits to government offices, just like any other public service that we Brazilians face here in Brazil. But, as mentioned in the previous comments, for a Brazilian to get a US visa we have to travel to Sao Paulo, the only place in Brazil were you can get it, no matter where you live in this big country, so your 4 hour trip is nothing compared to that.

    Also, I'd like to mention that Brazil utilizes the concept of reciprocity on regarding visas, which I think is the best, the way you treat your visitors is the way you're gonna be treated. So if you were from any were in EU for example, to get to Brazil you had to only hop on the plain.

    So please, don't blame on country policies regarding immigration, you have to plan in advance your trips to Brazil just like any Brazilian willing to go US.

  8. David, I agree that it is absurd you have to go through this hassle to simply visit another country. However, like the rest of comments here, I also agree that it's probably much more difficult to visit the US if you are a Brazilian. Believe me, I am from India and we need a visa to go anywhere and everywhere, with 3-4 weeks of waiting time being usual business. Even after that, visa's are routinely denied, mostly with inane reasons. Want to guess which country most of these denials come from? The US it is.

  9. If you are Brazilian, you will find this kind of dificulty in any government services here. Here in Brazil we have private companies whose service is to guide citizens to achieve results in the official organs. These companies called "brokers" serve to get a passport, license a vehicle or a driver's license. Overcharge, of course. Because it is impossible to go directly to the public and get their rights, for which we paid the tax burden more expensive on the planet.
    What you suffered in the U.S. there is a small sample of what we Brazilians suffer ALWAYS.

  10. it's always better to do advance works on holiday seasons since it can really cause delays.

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