By Barbara Marcolini
It’s been unusually cold for Spring in New York, but even so, Erica Marques, 35, prefers to be out. On her first trip to the city, the Brazilian psychologist decided to avoid stores and restaurants – but it’s not because she likes being out in the cold.
“I keep converting the prices to the Brazilian currency,” she said on a chilly afternoon on Times Square. “My strategy is simple: not to enter any store, and buy only the essential.”
Brazilians are one of the top international consumers for New York City tourism, being responsible for 12 percent of all foreign spending here. Although they are still coming in thousands, lately their travel programs have changed.
“They used to leave with their luggage packed up,” said travel consultant Elaine Andreev, who’s been working with Brazilian tourists in New York for 12 years. “If before their budget with accommodation was $250, now it’s $150. Those who are still coming are being more selective on how to spend their money.”
The Brazilian real has fallen 40 percent to the dollar in the past year. On January 19, the dollar achieved it’s highest price in the country since 1994, being sold to tourists by up to R$ 4.66. Brazilian foreign spending dropped by 32 percent in 2015, the lowest level in five years, and it has dropped even lower in the first months of 2016.
With the stronger dollar and an economic crisis at home, Brazilian tourists had to cut down their travel spending – and New York City retailers are feeling the impact.
Last year, Macy’s announced that slower tourist spending lowered the company’s total sales in about 1.5 percent. A source close to the company’s marketing department said that its stores in New York City have seen a decrease among Brazilian consumers. Workers at B&H, another popular retailer among Brazilian tourists, also said they are having fewer consumers from the country.
“We are tracking a few less Brazilian travelers and assume this is due to the Brazilian economic situation,” said Frank Deutsch, director of tour and travel sales at the Hotel Pennsylvania. “The Brazilian government is posing fees on travel agencies and transactions of Brazilians abroad, making it much harder for those who want to leave the country on their vacation.”
Although spending less, they are still coming. Preliminary data from NYC & Company expected an increase of 0.5 percent of tourists coming from Brazil in 2015, a total of 926,000 tourists (they are the third largest group of international visitors). Federal data also showed an increase of Brazilian visitors by 5.3 percent in first semester of 2015 (the official numbers for the previous year will be released this Summer).
Marques is among those who came, but can’t spend much. She started planning her trip with her boyfriend, Cris Silva, 37, last August. They bought flight tickets with credit card miles and are staying at a relative’s house in Astoria, Queens.
“If it weren’t for the free accommodation, it wouldn’t be possible for us to come,” said Silva. “Our budget is $2,000 for 15 days. We take the subway, eat at home. At a hotel, we would spend at least $200 per day.”
If everyday expenses in the U.S. are higher, cheaper flight tickets are a temptation to travel. In an effort to keep their planes full, airlines have sharply cut prices for flights since the dollar gained strength. A roundtrip from Sao Paulo to New York that costed about R$ 2,500 (about $694) one year ago can now be purchased for less than R$ 1,500 (or $416). A research from the Brazilian National Confederation of Transportation found that air tickets fell by 43 percent in the past decade.
Sabrine Henriques, 31, bought tickets to come with her husband from Rio de Janeiro to New York just one week before flying, after finding an unmissable deal on the internet.
“We paid only R$1,800 ($500) on airfare for the both of us,” she said while standing in front of Macy’s at Herald Square. “We’re spending 30 percent less with flight and hotel this time than when we came for the first time, in 2011.”
Henriques and her husband, Ricardo Alves, 35, work at Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned oil company which is in the middle of the country’s largest corruption scandal. They said they prefer to travel now than to wait for the uncertain future of the country.
“Although the political crisis in Brazil let us apprehensive, it didn’t prevent us from traveling,” said Alves.
At least for some, the economic turmoil opened opportunities. Patricia Toussie, a Brazilian blogger who writes about New York, always received messages from readers of her blog “NYorquina” asking about cheaper ways to explore the city. Last year, she became a travel consultant for Brazilian tourists on a budget.
“I help them finding cheaper accommodation, teach how to use the subway, give them tips on how to find the best discounts and free programs,” she said. “It’s not that Brazilian are not coming anymore, but how they are coming.”