Brazil struggles to overcome pre-Cup bottlenecks

Aug. 23, 2013 at 2:51 PM
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RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- Brazil is struggling to overcome major bottlenecks in administration and infrastructure as it opens ticket sales for next year's FIFA World Cup June 12.

More than 1 million tickets were requested within hours after bookings opened this week.

President Dilma Rousseff's government is still recovering from a sharp drop in approval ratings after riots across Brazil to protest state spending on high-value prestige projects and alleged neglect of more basic work on improving road and air transportation, accommodation and urban safety. After FIFA World Cup next year, Brazil will host the Winter Olympics in 2016.

Cynics in Brazilian media said "progress" is apparent most where it's least needed -- a quadrupling of hotel prices and what some see as a feeding frenzy among individuals and establishments in night entertainment industries.

Thousands of people in the sex trade bought crash courses to brush up on English to better negotiate terms for their services, Brazilian media reported.

In contrast, critics say, there's little regulation in place on services most likely to be used by most World Cup visitors -- from hotels and restaurants to taxis and public transport.

There's criticism too that not enough safeguards are in place to protect tourists from urban crime hotspots that coincide with popular venues for the sport.

Since April officials have tried to play down a tourist couple's ordeal in a shared taxi -- actually a van. The American woman was raped by male occupants of the vehicle and her French male companion was beaten. Then the two were robbed and dumped by the roadside. Three men were arrested and charged afterward.

Authorities say they are aiming to coordinate anti-narcotics agencies, police and paramilitary forces, intelligence networks and national tourism board Embratur. Large tracts of Brazilian cities -- the favela slums ruled mostly by gangs -- are no-man's land even for police.

Occasionally the army is called in, starts shooting and making arrests, and then things return to status quo.

FIFA officials remain upbeat about the games, but admit visitor safety issues could make or break the tournament's success and prospects for the Olympics two years later.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter has already put the onus for organization on Brazil rather than the football body. He called incidents targeting tourists "a warning" before the games kick off.

He said security is the responsibility of the government, not sports organizations.

"We can provide guidelines but finally it is up to the authorities," Blatter said

Critics say FIFA shouldn't wash its hands so easily. Hotels listed by FIFA's Swiss tour agency MATCH are among venues that have upped prices as much as 500 percent.

The Brazilian tourism board said the gouging of tourists would hurt Brazil's tourism and economy.

MATCH reached deals with nearly 800 hotels in Brazil right after the country was picked in 2007 to host next year's World Cup.

"We want to guarantee economic success and a legacy for the country that goes beyond the 2014 World Cup," Embratur said.

MATCH said it won't regulate prices that it insisted were set by the hotel owners and other tourism stakeholders. Critics say MATCH is set to earn higher commissions if the price increases remain in place.

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