Tim Wood | August 08, 2016 1:45 PM ET
Rio Can't Afford 'Meh' Olympics
This slang term for indifference is not a word that countries spending billions of dollars to host the Olympics want associated with their event.
I remember watching the Opening Ceremony from Beijing in 2008 and being absolutely captivated and amazed by one visual after another. My group of friends who usually never watch the event were tweeting out OMGs and all planning a trip to the Far East.
Those same friends are using that word to describe Rio thus far.
This should be the time when Rio de Janeiro basks in the Olympic spotlight en route to a record-setting tourism year.
Instead, it seems that many were looking to write the city’s tourism eulogy before the Summer Olympics even began. So as the world’s focus now turns to the athletes and the events, what will you remember about Rio?
I’m not a Brazil apologist, but it’s hard to call the news coverage leading up to the Games anything but a journalistic pigpile of epic proportions. Bad news sells, but the Olympics historically have been immune from such headline mongering. That has changed over the last 20 years as terrorism threats and the explosion of social media have put shortcomings under the spotlight.
Tales of unfinished hotel rooms and inept infrastructure flourished during the Sochi Winter Olympics and that trend continued in Rio, as even Olympic athletes – who are typically told not to complain – took to Twitter to air their disdain for the Olympic Village accommodations.
Concerns over the Zika virus kept high-profile athletes away and did not help consumer confidence in making the trip. And the pictures of waste washing ashore and the stories of stunning shortcomings in solving the city’s infrastructure issues during the country’s financial freefall kept painting a far-from-welcoming portrait.
Here, let John Oliver summarize the mainstream media view of Rio and Brazil thus far.
NBC has done their best to frame the city and country in the best light possible in the early days of the coverage, but the Opening Ceremony was one of the biggest snoozefests in recent Olympic history. Organizers admitted to spending half as much as London spent on their ceremony and 10 times less than the standard bearer Beijing did in 2008, but the optics resulted in drastically low ratings.
We get plenty of spin in our inbox here at TravelPulse, from studies that show overwhelming interest in travel to Rio and a big post-Olympics bump to the doom-and-gloom reports of all-time-low tourist interest. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
Yes, International Olympic Committee officials admit that tickets to the Games are lagging behind recent Olympics, and thusly, demand for hotels and flights is lower than expected. But let’s put the numbers in perspective.
Rio has sold 79 percent of their tickets as of Aug. 1, according to officials. That is lacking in comparison to London and Beijing, which sold more than 95 percent of their tickets. But it’s already higher than sales from Athens, Atlanta, Barcelona and Seoul – none of which faced the intense negative press leading up to the Games that Rio has absorbed.
China was in the middle of a huge population spike and London was in much better financial shape before Brexit became a thing. But still, that’s a solid result.
Rio organizers figure on last-second demand from locals, but many are facing rough times with unemployment nationwide over 11 percent, and even those who can afford it are historically only focused on soccer.
London organizers outsold their targets by 32 percent, while Rio is at just 96 percent of their goal.
Brazilian officials are reporting strong hotel sales at swanky beachfront properties. But overall, the region’s hotel inventory doubled to 56,000 rooms since 2009 to meet the expected need, only to find a lot of empty rooms.
Competition from Airbnb isn’t helping. That company reports brisk business, which will filter into the region’s economy as visitors eat out during their stays.
In every sector of tourism, officials are using terms such as “acceptable” or “satisfactory” or “not as bad as it could have been” to describe the influx of travelers and their spending to Brazil.
Take airlines, for example. American increased their capacity a bit for Brazil after dropping its flight by 40 percent since 2014 as Brazil’s economy faltered. But that’s likely a short-term uptick.
Meanwhile, more regional carriers like TAM, Azul and Gol are reporting less-than-extraordinary traveler numbers. A far less positive takeaway than Rio tourism officials promised even in the face of so much negative publicity.
So now, the focus becomes on getting that “Olympic bump” that so many cities have seen after their presentation of the Games. Barcelona evolved from a mid-level tourism attraction to a top-10 wish-list locale after 1992.
The tourism industry will have to count on NBC to help with those optics. Judging by the Opening Ceremony and John Oliver’s take on it, we’re off to a bad start.
Anecdotally, I’m already seeing far-less location-focused features on the NBC Universal stations. Tell me if you see different. My bet is while the rights holder has avoided any negative reporting, they’re also not trying to fool the viewers with too rosy of a picture.
So this feels like a mixed bag as well. We’re not seeing any hypodermic needles wash ashore but all it will take is one high-profile athlete getting sick from competing in the area water to turn that narrative back to a pigpile. NBC can only stay positive for so long before joining the fray.
One thing is certain. With the country facing so many challenges and putting so much of an investment in this two-week stretch to advertise its strengths, the last thing it can afford is an Olympics bump anywhere in the neighborhood of “Meh.”
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