Jason Henry for The New York Times
MIAMI — Even in a city that has embraced so many waves of Latinos that it is jokingly referred to as the only South American capital in North America, no one group has been as courted and pampered as the Brazilians.
Flush with cash from a booming economy and enamored of luxury, Brazilians are visiting South Florida in droves and spending millions of dollars on vacation condominiums, clothes, jewelry, furniture, cars and art, all of which are much less expensive here than in Brazil.
As a thank-you, Floridians are creating innovative ways to make the Brazilians happy and to encourage them to keep dipping into their wallets. Real estate agents, for example, have cobbled together one-stop-shopping firms that offer interior decorating and concierge services as well as legal advice and visa help. Some agents have even opened offices in Brazil to simplify the process.
Aware that Brazilians will not spend freely unless they feel at home, shopping malls have enticed them by hiring Portuguese-speaking sales clerks to proffer Dolce & Gabbana dresses and Hublot watches. Even Target has posted help-wanted signs in Portuguese.
Brazilian restaurants are also flourishing across Miami, including a popular chain from Brazil — Giraffas — that includes Brazilian cheese bread and special cuts of meat on the menu.
“Hola” and air kisses are still staples here, but “Oi” — a Brazilian greeting — is making noticeable inroads.
“We come to Miami to invest because in my country housing is very expensive,” said Claudio Coppola Di Todaro, a hedge fund investor from São Paulo who recently bought a condominium at Trump Towers in Sunny Isles Beach and another at the Trump SoHo in Manhattan (Brazilians also love New York). “We like Miami to go on vacation a few times a year. Many Brazilians do this now.”
While the United States and Europe continue to grapple with recession, Brazil’s economy gallops forward, powered by exports, a growing manufacturing base and abundant natural resources. Unemployment in October was 5.8 percent, and this week it passed Britain to become the sixth-largest economy in the world.
Brand-conscious Brazilians love to use their money — cash, above all — ranking first per capita in spending among the top 10 groups of foreign visitors to the United States, a list that includes the French, British and Germans. In all, 1.2 million Brazilians visited in 2010 and spent $5.9 billion, or $4,940 for each visitor. Only travelers from India and China outspent the Brazilians, but far fewer visit, and they are not among the top 10.
The Commerce Department expects the total number of Brazilian visitors will be even higher this year. Their economic impact is so powerful that the travel, restaurant, lodging and retail industries, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been lobbying Washington to let Brazilians travel here without visas, as the citizens of the European Union countries do. In November, the State Department agreed to add more consular officers to speed up the visa process.
American Airlines now has 52 flights a week to Miami from five cities in Brazil, and has applied for more routes. Because it receives the highest number of visitors from Brazil, Florida has benefited most from the country’s new wealth and the expansion of its middle class. Most of the Brazilians who come to the United States visit Florida, and in the first nine months of this year, an estimated 1.1 million Brazilians spent $1.6 billion in the state, an increase of nearly 60 percent from the previous year. Among foreign nations, only Canada sends more visitors to Florida.
The Brazilians’ money has helped resuscitate the real estate market in Miami. Foreigners account for more than half of all property sales in Miami, and condominium towers that once sat empty are quickly selling out.
“Brazilians in many ways have been the saving grace here,” said Edgardo Defortuna, president of Fortune International Realty, which has offices in Brazil and Miami. “Price is not much of an issue for them.”
Brazilians here slip into the Latin American lifestyle — late dinners and familiar fashions, food and music. And the relative safety of the United States is a bonus. Rio de Janeiro’s murder rate, while declining, is nearly triple of that in Miami.
Eager to shop and spend time with friends and family, extended networks of Brazilians often buy condominiums in the same building, like the W in South Beach.
“In Miami, they can come here and wear expensive watches and drive their convertible cars, and nobody will cut your arm for a piece of jewelry, like happens at home,” said Alexandre Piquet, a Brazilian lawyer for Piquet Realty, which was founded by his brother, Cristiano, a well-known race-car driver. “Here we don’t have to worry about kids crossing the street and getting kidnapped, some of the issues we still face down there. It’s the reality.”
Piquet Realty, founded in 2005 has doubled its business in the past year, Cristiano Piquet said. Some apartments it sells come fully furnished by Artefacto, a prominent Brazilian furniture designer. If Brazilians need help with legal transactions, tax matters or immigration advice, the firm offers that, too. If a customer wants a Ferrari, Piquet Realty arranges it.
Like so many businesses in South Florida, the firm aggressively promotes itself in Brazil, as does Miami’s tourism board and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, who traveled to Brazil this year on a trade mission.
Now, Orlando is trying to lure Brazilians, who prefer the city’s outlet malls over its theme parks. Pegasus Transportation operates regular shopping tours, bringing thousands of Brazilians to the malls. The Tommy Hilfiger clothing outlet and H.H. Gregg electronic store open early just for them.
“They are buying everything imaginable,” said Claudia Menezes, vice president of Pegasus. “Laptops, cameras, brand clothes — lots of Prada and Louis Vuitton.”
This zest for spreading cash is the main reason why the visa battle is beginning to resonate on Capitol Hill.
There are only four American Consular offices in Brazil, a country almost the size of the United States. To get a visa, many Brazilian must travel long distances to be interviewed at a consular office. Despite the onerous process, there were 820,000 visa applications this year, with an average wait of 50 days — too long, tourism officials say.
Lobbyists are pressuring Congress and the State Department to change the process. Barring that, they are pushing for more consular offices and a pilot program that would screen visa applicants through video conferences. Seven bills are pending in Congress on the visa issue.
In the meantime, tourism officials say, Europe siphons away a large number of Brazilians because traveling there is so much easier. Western Europe receives 52 percent of all Brazilians who travel abroad and the United States 29 percent.
“You could probably double the number of Brazilians in the United States” if visas were not required, said Patricia Rojas, a vice president at the U.S. Travel Association. “We are at a complete disadvantage.”