Nick Edwards is madly pulling weeds, sanding the bar and scooping buckets of rusty water from the icebox. “These guys are my childhood heroes and they are staying here,” he exclaims with awe as he refurbishes the bar at the Itauna Inn, a beachside pousada. “These guys” include the world’s top professional surfers, and they have just invaded Saquarema, a fishing village two hours north of Rio de Janeiro.
Edwards, a local English teacher, opened the small bar to capitalize on the fledgling, but thriving, surf industry. Indeed, the entire town has been revamped. While two years ago Saquarema barely figured on a tourist map, today professional sports have blasted the 63,000-resident community into a new era. First came the unveiling of a 110,00-square-meter Olympic volley-ball-training center. Then, in October 2002, a professional surfing tour sponsored by the World Championship Tour came to town, exposing Saquarema’s secret: Itauna Beach.
“For the first seven years it was tough,” says Ian Paterson, a British expatriate who runs the Massai Hotel on Itauna Beach. “But, finally, in the last two years it [tourism] has taken off.” Surfing is big business in Brazil, which turns out worldclass athletes in the sport, and professional surfers describe with near religious awe the Saquarema Express, a 400-meter-long wave that curls south all the way down to Nossa Senhora de Nazareth, a waterfront church propped like a lighthouse on the rocks. A fixture since 1630, the church was recently adopted by a French lighting expert who buried highpowered blue spotlights into the hillside to create the illusion of a floating church. This illuminated spectacle now gazes down on the pro surfers, volleyball enthusiasts and religious pilgrims.
The sports attractions join a more traditional draw, the Sept. 7 religious festival honoring the town’s patron saint. That event regularly attracted some 75,000 pilgrims, but few stayed for longer than a day. As for the surfers, in the past they could barely afford wax for their beloved fiberglass, let alone a hotel. However, thanks to a new tourism-marketing plan, the pilgrims spend the night and the surfers are as likely to be from South Africa as South America.
Wielding a study completed in 2000 and titled “Above the Waves,” the local business community and the government set out to launch a tourism industry. Their plan called for a three-pronged strategy directed at religious devotees, surf junkies and eco-tourists drawn by killer whales, penguins, sea turtles and golden-faced monkeys singing in cashew trees. The town estimates it can draw 1,000 tourists a day year round, worth more than US$9 million in revenues.
By adding tours to the region’s lakes, mountainside farms and nature reserves, Saquarema aims for sustainable tourism based on its natural beauty. From the sounds around town, the plan is working: The din of crashing waves mixes with the pounding, sawing and drilling of construction crews. The town that once lacked a sufficient number of tourists to fill two pousadas, or guest houses, now can’t find enough makeshift bed-and-breakfast establishments to handle the 3,000 visitors that flood the community each weekend.
That this fishing village, two hours north of Rio, eluded tourism this long is largely due to Brigitte Bardot. In the early 1960s, the French actress slipped off with her Brazilian boyfriend to another fishing village, Armacao de Buzios, and declared it an aphrodisiacal paradise. Investors, quick to capitalize on its 23 horseshoe-shaped beaches and romantic coves, promptly invaded Buzios, 80 kilometers north of Saquarema. With Buzios drawing attention–and infrastructure– there was no need to develop the charms of neighboring seaside towns.
“You know why we aren’t famous yet?” jokes Berenice Borges, a reporter for the local newspaper. “Brigitte Bardot took a wrong turn. She was looking for Saquarema and got lost.”
Saquarema’s strict environmental regulations, introduced to protect a huge seaside lake, nature reserves, ancient burial grounds and the beach, have discouraged industry. The tourism push, therefore, promises to create jobs in a town dependent on government paychecks. Indeed, dozens of young men are stationed throughout the city painting sidewalks, curbs and signs. Hundreds more work on road crews, which are waging a losing battle to fill the volleyball-sized potholes that keep dozens of repair stands in business replacing blown car tires and bent wheel rims. Soon, instead of painting sidewalks, these crews will be planting trees, installing bike lanes and sitting in lifeguard towers.
Local business leader Paulo Melo, a member of Brazil’s Congress, is heading the charge for a new Saquarema. He regularly sponsors local surfers to attend tournaments around the world with the hope that their victories will bring attention to their hometown. Melo is also promoting a plan to rip up a section of the coastline to turn a brackish lake into a marina.
A huge crane is stationed on the beach, slowly ripping apart the dunes to create a passageway to the ocean–an operation that has attracted the criticism of environmental groups. But 200 kilometers offshore, a far more complex environmental change has commenced: Government-owned oil company Petrobras has found more oil. That means beginning in 2004, under Brazil’s energy royalty system, Saquarema should be gushing with oil revenue. Its dream of a sustainable, eco-friendly tourist town may, ironically, be financed by an oil well.