Travel

Rio’s Carnival a Big Draw for Gay Tourists

by Rob Harris
Thursday Feb 23, 2012
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It took Dutch tourist Adriaan little time after landing in Rio to pick out his favorite spot during Carnival, the five-day party that officially ended Wednesday.

A 35-year-old graphic designer, he found his niche at the gay meeting point on Ipanema beach, where palm fronds and rainbow flags wave in the balmy ocean breeze, and tanned, well-muscled young men strut about in swim suits that reveal more than they conceal. Conversation failed to distract the tall, blond visitor from his careful perusal of the bathers rinsing off salt water at an open-air shower in a ritual that was equal parts bathing and public display of bodies toned to perfection.

"This is just beautiful," he said while sitting on the beach in the gayest neighborhood of a city routinely ranked as a top destination for gay tourists.

"We have a lot of gay people at home, it’s very normal, no big deal. But it’s not like this: so many people, in the sun, partying together. This is like a candy shop!"

Adriaan, who preferred not to give his last name to keep his Carnival carousing off from the Internet, was one of thousands of foreigners drawn by the heady sensuality and live-and-let-live attitude displayed by residents year-round, and especially at Carnival time.

The love goes both ways: Rio officials are trying to attract more visitors such as Adriaan, who bring an enormous amount of money into the economy.

"The city of Rio doesn’t discriminate. It is in its essence welcoming," said Rio Secretary of Tourism Antonio Figueira de Mello. "Carnival is when the city shows that side most clearly. It’s a party that welcomes the world."

By all accounts, this year’s festivities lived up to the expectations, despite a police strike that threatened to derail the event, but was called off before the glitter started flying.

The daylong street parties drew hundreds of thousands, while glamorous parades took over at night in the city’s Sambadrome stadium, where Rio’s most beautiful men and women shimmied atop elaborate floats dressed only in strategically placed feathers and sequins.

The final numbers of visitors, gay or straight, are not yet in, but city officials are saying this was one of the most successful, and diverse, parties yet.

"This is just beautiful," he said while sitting on the beach in the gayest neighborhood of a city routinely ranked as a top destination for gay tourists.

The mayor’s office last year created a diversity department headed by Carlos Tufvesson, a gay, multilingual fashion designer, to work with gay tourists, researching their needs and launching campaigns against homophobia and for safe sex during Carnival.

A series of gay-friendly initiatives followed: the resurrection of anti-discrimination laws that had been on the books since 1996 but were seldom enforced; the establishment of a hotline for homophobia complaints; vocational training for transvestites and anti-bullying efforts meant to help gay and lesbian students.

According to the tourism secretary, more than a quarter of the approximately 3 million tourists who flood into Rio every summer are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and 75 percent are young men between ages 20 and 35. They stay in the city an average of five days and spend about $200 a day, more than double the $74 a day that heterosexual tourists spend.

The city had local artists produce a samba song urging the city to hold a "Carnival without prejudice" and it distributed paper fans urging people to report violations of Rio’s anti-discrimination laws to a hotline.

Reality, however, isn’t always as sunny as Ipanema’s gay beach and bars would suggest. On Feb. 13th, days before Carnival, two gay Brazilian tourists were assaulted by taxi drivers on their way out of the city’s international airport. One of them needed stitches and checked into a hospital.

The civil rights organization Grupo Gay da Bahia registered 282 occurrences of discrimination in Brazil based on sexual orientation in 2011, ranging from insults to 87 of physical aggression, according to anthropologist Luiz Mott, who founded the group.

French tourist Frederic Du Pont, 36, on his fourth visit to Rio, said he has heard the occasional anti-gay slur on a city bus or away from the wealthy south side, but he’s never felt threatened.

"Sometime I worry a little bit, I’m not sure how far I can go," he said. "Maybe I look at the wrong guy in the eyes a little too long, maybe they’re not gay. But I’ve never been harassed."

Du Pont, like many visitors, said he still can’t pull off the easy Carioca way of approaching a total stranger and within minutes extracting a kiss. Even on his latest return trip he was a little shy about diving into the sweat-soaked, percussion-driven throng at Ipanema during Carnival.

Even so, Du Pont said he’d had no trouble finding friends.

"There is so much seduction everywhere," he said. "You are in overdrive, all the time. This is Carnival."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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