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Despite risks, Brazil’s colonial cities reopen for tourism

. Jun 17, 2020
Despite risks, Brazil's colonial cities reopen for tourism Cleaning crew disinfect Tiradentes Square in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais. Photo: Douglas Magno via Getty

With their traditional colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, cities dotted along the so-called Royal Road — which once connected the gold mines in the state of Minas Gerais to the coast of Rio de Janeiro — are a Brazilian tourism hotpot. Since the declaration of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, these locations have turned into something resembling ghost towns. One video posted by local business owners, using drone footage, toured the streets of the colonial town of Tiradentes, showing the tourist hotspot in a deserted state, with empty squares that are usually filled with visitors from around Brazil and the world. The region’s hugely important Easter celebrations — massive money spinners thanks to the countless World Heritage site churches along the Royal Road — were canceled, and the resulting economic hardship has hit locals hard.

</p> <p>In some of these towns, up to 90 percent of family income is dependent on tourism. With desperation setting in, many of these cities decided to reopen business during last week&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2019/06/20/corpus-christi-holiday-god-lgbtq-pride/">Corpus Christi</a> holiday. And the demand was there. Visitors flocked to these towns along the Royal Road, packing pavements, inns, and restaurants. The throng of tourists flocking to the Serra do Cipó region — north of state capital Belo Horizonte — caused immense traffic jams at sanitary checkpoints placed along highways.</p> <p>Parachuting into one of these tourist towns, you would never imagine that Brazil is still in the throes of its worst pandemic in a century — a frightening scenario for the state of Minas Gerais, where coronavirus <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/06/15/brazilian-state-of-minas-gerais-no-longer-able-to-hide-covid-19-crisis/">infection and death curves</a> are still on the rise.</p> <p>Local business owners and workers who depend on tourism to make ends meet celebrated the reopening, while community leaders protested. One group of local residents staged a protest on a bridge connecting the municipalities of Jaboticatubas and Santana do Riacho, wearing black clothes, protective masks, and gloves, begging — in vain — for tourists to turn their cars around and go home.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="667" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/shutterstock_1749291896.jpg" alt="Brazil's Colonial cities reopen for tourism despite risks" class="wp-image-42667" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/shutterstock_1749291896.jpg 1000w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/shutterstock_1749291896-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/shutterstock_1749291896-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/shutterstock_1749291896-610x407.jpg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Tiradentes, Minas Gerais. In some cities, families&#8217; income depends entirely on tourism. Photo: Caio Pederneiras/Shuttersstock</figcaption></figure> <h2>Tourism sector cashing in on Sweethearts&#8217; Day</h2> <p>The town of Monte Verde —&nbsp;a <a href="https://brazilian.report/tourism/2019/07/25/best-winter-tourism-brazil/">cold-weather region</a> up in the Serra da Mantiqueira mountains —&nbsp;decided to reopen for tourism on June 4, in anticipation of Sweethearts&#8217; Day on June 12, <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2018/06/12/brazil-valentines-day-june-12/">Brazil&#8217;s answer to Valentine&#8217;s Day</a>. According to the local economic development agency, the hospitality industry used the shutdown period to &#8220;revamp&#8221; its local attractions.</p> <p>Apparently, the strategy worked. Nearly every single room available — with bed and breakfasts limited to filling 40 percent of their capacity — was booked up. Some tweaks had to be made, though. &#8220;We are no longer cleaning guests&#8217; rooms during their stay —&nbsp;only before and after check out. And fares are significantly lower than usual for the season,&#8221; said Luís Gustavo Cuadra de Almeida, who owns a luxury inn atop a mountain in Monte Verde.</p> <p>Authorities say that, should the reopening cause a rise in infections, restrictions could be put in place once again.&nbsp;</p> <h2>&#8216;Tourists go home&#8217;</h2> <p>The coronavirus has forced the city of Extrema — a hotspot for natural tourism in the south of Minas Gerais — to shut down its borders for outsiders.&nbsp;</p> <p>Since June 5, the town of 36,000 people recorded 64 new cases, to a total tally of 226. Despite already having strict social isolation measures in place since the beginning of the pandemic, authorities decided to ramp up controls and installed a curfew. No one is allowed on the streets from 6 pm to 6 am.</p> <p>Another Minas Gerais city that has banned tourists is the spa town of Poços de Caldas, the biggest attraction in the southwest portion of the state. Most of its 50 hotels are closed, and staff members have been placed on collective vacations. Since March 23, only cars with license plates from the city are allowed to enter its urban boundaries.</p> <p>Despite commerce being allowed to reopen last week, Poços de Caldas has had the <a href="https://g1.globo.com/mg/sul-de-minas/noticia/2020/06/16/com-aumento-no-numero-de-casos-isolamento-social-volta-a-aumentar-nas-maiores-do-sul-de-mg.ghtml">highest social isolation rate</a> of the region: 42 percent, according to geolocation company In Loco. As of June 16, the city had recorded 93 coronavirus infections and four deaths. Authorities claim that the virus was brought by tourists.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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