When honeymooners Tom and Rachel Pelisson were deciding where to travel in South America this month, at the top of their list was the famous Iguazú Waterfalls on the border of Argentina and Brazil. But when they arrived by way of Argentina to the world’s fourth-largest waterfall, they saw that Brazilian visa restrictions against U.S. tourists had literally cut the experience in half for them.
While other foreigners could freely cross into Brazil to see the whole of the United Nations-designated World Heritage Site, the two Americans would have needed to find a Brazilian embassy or consulate back home and apply in person for the $160 visa with proof of income and other documents — an act of “reciprocity” because of similar levies on Brazilian tourists.
“It’s just not worth it,” said Mr. Pelisson, 32, of Bristol, Rhode Island, as he stood with his bride beneath the spray of waterfalls on the Argentine side. He isn’t alone in feeling that way. Last year, according to tourism officials, 41,424 Americans visited the Argentine waterfalls, a quarter more than the number to the Brazilian side (each nation claims the supreme view), highlighting the loss of tourism revenue to Brazilian businesses because of visa restrictions.
American honeymooners Tom and Rachel Pelisson sit on the Argentine side of Iguazu Waterfalls, looking to the Brazilian side that they won't visit because of visa restrictions
Had Pelisson delayed that honeymoon a few months, things might have been different when he arrived to the Brazilian border.
In what could be a watershed moment for bilateral tourism and business relations, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is expected to discuss the easing of visa restrictions against U.S. citizens when she meets with Barack Obama during an official state visit to the White House later this year. The trip, which was first scheduled to happen in October 2013 but postponed amid allegations that the US was spying on Brazilian officials and firms, will be the first official visit by a sitting Brazilian president since 1995, when Fernando Henrique Cardoso was invited by Bill Clinton.
Americans had an easier time getting into Brazil before Sept. 11, 2001, when the United States government tightened its visa requirements and other nations responded in kind. Today, to get a travel visa through Brazil's consulate in New York City, for example, a U.S. citizen must make an appointment and arrive with a valid passport, extra photo, completed application, copy of round-trip ticket, and U.S. Postal Service Money Order for $160 (no cash or checks accepted). Brazil used to go one step further and require Americans to be fingerprinted photographed upon their arrival, which led to the 2004 incident with an American Airlines pilot being fined $13,000 for flipping off the camera.
The easing of restrictions has been discussed in policy circles for several years and would boost trade and tourism in both directions, says Mark Langevin, director of advisory firm BrazilWorks in Washington, D.C. Talks are likely already underway on the issue, he says, adding that it could even make sense for Brazil to unilaterally suspend its visa requirements as a signal of goodwill.
“The visa issue with the US is a glaring example of where Brazil’s fierce embrace of reciprocity leads it to shoot itself in the small toe,” said Langevin.
The recent détente between Cuba and the U.S. shows that it’s possible to make quick progress on even seemingly intractable issues, but, to be sure, much work needs to be done before we see any visa breakthrough between Rousseff and Obama, who have only met once at the White House, amid several years of icy relations. By contrast, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has been in office for half as long as Rousseff, has visited the White House three times, including for an official state visit in early January.
The agenda for the meeting of the largest two nations in the Western Hemisphere will also likely include talks on military cooperation, the opening of Cuba, and a bilateral tax treaty, according to political scientist David Fleischer of the University of Brasilia. He said the visit is expected to happen by September, perhaps to coincide with Rousseff’s visit to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly.
American business would also gain from an easing of visa restrictions. A 2012 study found that the removal of travel visa restrictions on a particular country is associated with a 200 percent increase in travel from that country. If true, that would mean the potential for an additional 4 million Brazilian visitors a year to the U.S., pumping another $24.8 billion into the economy, given that about 2 million traveled to the US in 2013 and spent about $12.4 billion, according to data from the US Department of Commerce.
Despite the hurdles for U.S. visitors to Brazil, 111,000 still turned up for the World Cup last June — the second-largest group of foreigners after Argentinians. But now that Brazil doesn’t have the world’s biggest sporting event to attract US visitors, the government may have further reason to lift the visa requirements as a way of boosting tourism to the benefit of the nation’s struggling economy. According to the US Department of Commerce, of the 29 million U.S. travelers abroad in 2013, less than half-a-million went to Brazil, fewer than the number that visited tiny Peru or Austria (neither of whom imposes a visa fee).
For now, Brazil remains too difficult to visit for Americans like Sheena Bhandari, even though she could literally feel the spray of Brazilian water coming off Iguazú Waterfalls when she stood on the Argentine side earlier this month.
“There was this dinner-and-dancing show that I saw in a brochure and I wanted to do that, but they were like, ‘It’s on the Brazil side,’ so it’s not part of my to-do list anymore,” said Bhandari, 27, of San Francisco. She said she’ll be back if Brazil lowers its visa hurdles, and she would welcome if that also means more Brazilians visiting the US. Until then, as an American she has 172 other countries that she can visit without a visa.
“We don’t have time to visit Brazil with the whole visa thing involved,” she said.
Stephen Kurczy, a Brazil correspondent, has reported from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the jungles of the Amazon. Somewhere along the way he became addicted to açaí, a purple slushy made from the powerfruit.