RIO DE JANEIRO — From where he sits inside Rio’s Sambadrome, a snack vendor mulls what the global financial crisis means for “the greatest party on earth.”
First, the bad news: fewer foreigners at this year’s Carnival.
“The gringos who are coming this year — there are substantially fewer, and those who are coming are spending less money,” Cagiza Acides Paixao said.
On the upside: In Rio, nothing can stop a good time.
“Carnival in Brazil — with its marvelous sun, beaches, samba all year round, and, you know, the girls — it will shine, with or without a crisis,” Paixao said as samba music blasted from his small shop.
So it goes for the anything-goes pre-Lenten drink-and-flesh fest, which opens Friday and runs through Feb. 24.
While the percentage of foreigners in the crowds is expected to drop to 30 percent from about half, Rio’s official tourism agency expects Brazilians to make up the difference, for about 719,000 tourists, a slight increase over last year’s 705,000. They are expected to inject $521 million into the city’s economy, up from $510 million last year.
And the government still plans to dole out 65 million free condoms.
For weeks, dour reports have splashed across the pages of Brazil’s newspapers: Top samba schools don’t have the money to finish their floats. A handful of small cities in Brazil’s interior canceled Carnival altogether. With fewer foreigners spending dollars and euros, locals will struggle to bring in the money they count on to make ends meet all year.
The schools have struggled this year to land corporate sponsors to help pay the $2.5 million on average that each club spends on its parade show, said Cahe Rodrigues, the “carnavelsco” responsible for designing the themes, costumes and floats for the top-contending Grande Rio samba school.
“This will be the year of creativity, because the artists have to redouble their efforts to be able to compete for the championship,” said Rodrigues, whose show will include hundreds of drummers and a 50-by-100-foot replica of the Moulin Rouge. “This year is forcing the carnavalescos to push their imaginations.”
Some of the fiercely competitive schools have reportedly been forced to save money by trading basic construction materials this year. And one, Imperio Serrano, is using 5,000 plastic bottles to build a huge octopus for its “Mysteries of the Sea” float.
So far, they appear to focus on non-controversial themes, like celebrating the ties between France and Brazil. There has been no hint of provocative presentations like last year’s Holocaust float, which prompted international outrage.
Tragedy did strike early Tuesday: A stray bullet killed a 14-year-old girl at the Imperatriz school’s practice session, police said. There was no word on where the shot came from.
Carnival’s revelry is split between informal block parties that began in earnest last weekend and the spectacular samba club parades and performance competitions that feature jaw-dropping floats, thousands of gyrating performers and untold amounts of sequins and ostrich feathers.
Brazil’s currency has lost 35 percent of its value since last year, hovering now about at around 2.3 to the U.S. dollar, which has helped keep some international tourists coming.
“You have to spend your time — and money — trying to be happy,” Paula Gregorio de las Heras of Santiago, Chile, said as she eyed costumes and trinkets in a souvenir shop. “That’s why I traveled here, despite the crisis. You’ve got to enjoy life.”
The bad economy also means more Brazilians are joining this year’s party, keeping hotels about as full as they were last year, said Riotur’s operations director, Paulo Villela.
“Carnival is Carnival,” said Cristiane Estrello, a 30-year-old from southern Brazil who was touring the Sambadrome’s half-mile long parade ground with her husband and young daughter. “There is no crisis in the world that can put out the flames of this party.”
The crisis is having a greater effect on harder-to-get-to celebrations, like Salvador in Bahia state and Florianopolis in the south, that require plane trips or long bus rides. Juliano Corbetta, who runs the popular culture and tourism blog MadeInBrazil, says foreigner inquiries are all “about Rio, Rio, Rio.”
And Carnival characters large and small — from top tourism officials to samba school leaders to workers such as Paixao — say what this year’s party may lack in money will more than make up for in creativity.
Heading into his 54th straight Carnival in Rio, samba dance instructor Manoel Dionisio said he has ushered the party through countless economic crises and has yet to see the parade lose its shine. But it depends on fancy footwork by “carnavalescos,” he said.
“They have to find a way. If we don’t put on a good Carnival, the entire world will see it and think we’ve lost our luster,” Dionisio said, surrounded by Sambadrome tourists seeking quick samba lessons and snapshots with the 72-year-old, who maintains a lithe physique from years of dance training.
Back at his snack stand, Paixao watched tourists carry in water and snacks they bought from cheaper vendors outside the stadium’s gates — a discouraging sign of frugality.
“I usually make an extra $3,000 in the months leading up to Carnival, money I’ve used each year to return to Angola to visit my family,” he said. “This year, I’m preparing myself for the fact I won’t be able to make that trip. The party here might still be great, but as of now the money isn’t.”