Brazil won’t win the World Cup at home this year. Many promised infrastructure projects that were supposed to be the legacy of its $11.5 billion investment in the tournament haven’t been delivered. The country’s economic outlook is glum.
But not all is lost.
Amid the crying and disappointment and even the sporadic protests, something very important has happened: Brazil has been properly introduced to the rest of the world.
Speaking as a reporter who’s covered pivotal mega sports events in two massive countries—the World Cup in Brazil and the Olympic Games in Beijing six years earlier—I can say that something major happens to a nation when it receives a huge wave of foreign visitors at one time.
It has nothing to do with trophies, medals, or even tourism revenue, and everything to do with the tourists themselves. This is because China and Brazil, which are as different as they are distant from each other, have something in common. Most of their citizens have never left the country. They speak only one language. And they know little of the outside world, or about how the outside world perceives them.
In China, the Olympics had many downsides, including the forced evictions and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people to make way for an Olympic park.
But on the streets of Beijing, Chinese people met and interacted with people from foreign lands for the first time. They practiced their English and asked endless questions about life in Europe and the land of McDonalds and Coca-Cola.
The foreign visitors, meanwhile, landed in a sprawling city full of high rises that erased any dated image they had of people riding around on bicycles in Mao suits. They met many, many people who were happy and proud to be Chinese: People who used their own versions of social media, loved celebrity gossip and bought lots and lots of stuff online. People who were obsessed with Apple products and American pop music.
Suddenly China became a prime destination for tourists, exchange students, and even new college graduates trying to find themselves.
Like China, Brazil has also long had an overly simplistic image abroad. Just this week when the Seleção lost to Germany 7-1, my Brazilian colleague Patricia Kowsmann wrote of her heartbreak over losing Brazil’s claim to being the best at soccer, practically the only thing the country is known for. As a Brazilian woman living abroad, she says she can barely introduce herself without being asked about it, because people know little else about the country.
My colleague isn’t alone. A Brazilian employee of a multinational company once told me he went to his employer’s U.S. headquarters only to be asked if Latin America’s largest economy was “that country next to Paraguay.”
Part of this could be Brazil’s relatively limited exposure to the outside world. Most Brazilians lucky enough to venture out of the country have historically been its middle class or wealthier citizens. Though millions have moved out of poverty over the last decade, over half the country still survives on a minimum annual household income of just $8,900—not enough to fund a trip to Disney World.
There are programs for foreign students to attend universities in the U.S. But these opportunities typically are open to only a small sliver of Brazil’s population; tens of millions of Brazilians lack high-school diplomas. And while Brazil has a vibrant and fast-growing Internet, language barriers can hinder more cross-border interaction.
Meanwhile, the country received just 5.7 million international visitors in 2012, according to the latest data from U.N.’s World Tourism Organization, and only around five million in each of the four years before that. This despite the fact that Brazil has a population of 200 million and is as large as the continental U.S.; it boasts some of the world’s most scenic beaches, a vibrant musical culture and bustling cities, not to mention the vast Amazon rainforest. In comparison, the U.S. had 67 million international visitors in 2012.
There are many reasons for this. Brazil is long way to go for many developed-world travelers. It’s expensive because of high taxes on consumer goods and a strong currency. And though soccer may be the first thing foreigners associate with Brazil, violent crime is a close second. Films such as “City of God” and “Elite Squad” have popularized scary depictions of Brazil. I’m constantly bombarded by with questions about safety from friends outside Brazil.
It doesn’t help that, just weeks before I moved from Beijing to São Paulo, a Brazilian friend in China looked me dead in the eye and begged me not to move here alone. When I asked why, he aimed his fingers at the sky as if he were holding an assault rifle, and imitated the “da da da da da” sound of bullets firing.
He had a point. Brazil has little gun control and some of the world’s highest murder rates. Fortunately, though, I have encountered no Tony Montana-esque scenes in my almost two years here. If any of the hundreds of thousands of foreigners in town for the World Cup did, they didn’t share the story with reporters.
Brazil still needs serious investment in security, education and medical care for its citizens. But Cup tourists are now talking about far more than soccer and violence. They are marveling at Brazil’s many natural wonders, the beautiful shorelines, friendly people, plentiful beer and bowls of sorbet made from açaí berries.
Rush hour congestion isn’t that much worse than any major city in the world. And Brazilian music has far more to offer than Michel Teló’s “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego.”
With the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro fast approaching, interest in Brazil is likely to grow. Brazil normally receives an uptick in international tourism during Carnival. But big mega events like the World Cup, the Olympics and last year’s World Youth Day conference with Pope Francis, tend to attract more first-time visitors who wouldn’t otherwise get to know the country. This creates a very different dynamic for cultural exchange.
For example, tourism officials say 62% of international tourists who came for the World Cup are here for the first time, and 98% say they would come back. The World Travel & Tourism Council, an industry forum, now expects that Brazil will receive 6.4 million international tourist arrivals in 2014, and that this number will swell to 14.2 million by 2024.
Other preconceptions of Brazil have been shattered, too—for example, some rowdier tourists discovered that, despite Brazil’s often hyper-sexualized image, Brazilian women do not appreciate being grabbed or verbally harassed on the street. In fact, many Brazilian women are pretty angry and have spoken up about it.
These types of cultural exchanges—the kind that are only possible in these mass meetings of people from different nations—can teach us as much about ourselves as they can about others. Many Brazilians may be unhappy about money wasted on the World Cup, and they have every right to be. But the conversations that have taken place over these last several weeks will not soon be forgotten.
Maria Clara dos Santos, a resident of one of Rio’s most populous favelas whom I met while reporting, has acted as something of an ambassador for Rio’s slums during the World Cup. She lets foreign tourists bunk in her home and has hosted reporters and TV crews in her house almost daily since the Cup started, hoping to show the world that her community is about a lot more than just drugs and violence. But in doing so, she told me she learned a lot about Brazil, too.
“I think tourism is important for the community, like now I am hosting people in my house. We learn,” she said. For example, she discovered from conversations with visitors that there are well-funded programs for Brazilians to study abroad. “These scholarships are for Brazilians who already have the means to go [overseas],” she said. “I think we should leave those people here, and take those who don’t have the means to go.”
Until that happens, incoming travelers are providing a window for more Brazilians to see the outside world, and vice versa. These sorts of cultural exchanges can potentially change lives forever. Ms. dos Santos, 49, now records video interviews of her house guests, asking them what they think of her community, and posts them on Youtube and Facebook as keepsakes and to share with her friends.
Brazil may have tarnished its reputation as the “país do futebol,” or country of soccer. But perhaps it has gained a new identity as a country that may be troubled but is diverse, nuanced, and ultimately more beautiful than its soccer.
A version of this personal essay appeared on wsj.com.