Worried about Rio? What travelers need to know before heading to the Olympic Games
By: Sid Lipsey
With the Summer Olympics less than two weeks away, we're hearing very little talk about which athletes will shine, which records will fall and which nations will win the most medals.
Instead, the pre-Olympic hype has been about how bad things are in Rio de Janeiro, which athletes are skipping the Games and whether this will be the most disastrous Olympics ever.
Rio is in the eye of a perfect storm of problems that are threatening to turn the Olympics into an international bust — and a potential headache for tourists:
--Brazil is struggling through its worst recession in 25 years, and the acting governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro has warned that budget problems put the Olympics in danger of being "a big failure."
Health workers in Rio de Janeiro spray insecticide around Olympic properties to combat the mosquito known to transmit the Zika virus. (AP)
--Crime is rampant in Rio, where there were more than 1,700 murders this year through April —15 percent more than last year. There also have been some high-profile robberies: Three members of the Spanish sailing team were held up at gunpoint while training for the Olympics in May.
--Several athletes have been sickened by Rio's polluted waterways in recent months. The Guanabara Bay, where Olympic sailing events are scheduled to take place, is far from clean. An Olympic organizer told Voice of America that only 50 percent of the sewage flowing into Guanabara Bay was treated (he said he hoped it will be closer to 80 percent by the Games).
--There have been numerous reports that construction hasn’t been completed at several venues.
--The mosquito-borne Zika virus has caused several high-profile athletes, including Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, to stay home. Because Zika has been linked to birth defects, "Today" anchor Savannah Guthrie, who is pregnant, also announced she won't be in Rio with her NBC colleagues.
"The headlines are certainly not favorable," says Scott Berman, leader of the U.S. hospitality and leisure practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "And when you have signature athletes withdrawing, that adds to the anxiety."
How will those issues affect the estimated 350,000 to 500,000 people expected to travel to Rio for the Games? In some ways, a lot. In others, maybe not much at all.
Tickets to the games
The bad headlines may be affecting ticket sales. A recent report from Rio 2016 organizers said only 70 percent of the 6 million tickets for the Olympics had been sold, leaving more than 1 million available for purchase. That's fewer than what had been sold at this time before the London Games in 2012, and it could be good news for buyers looking for tickets to highly sought-after events. Tickets to the Opening Ceremony, for instance, are still available (albeit for a minimum of 3,000 Brazilian reals, which is just over $900). And as Yahoo Sports points out, tickets to the men's basketball quarterfinal are available for as little as $55 – much cheaper than your typical NBA game.
Fares to Rio next month are edging higher, indicating that demand is still high. "Even the best deals for round trips from a typical U.S. origin to see the Games are well over $1,100, which is significantly higher than typical prices in the $700-$750 range," says Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at the airfare prediction app Hopper. "It's unclear that there's any effect from Zika at this point."
Flights may be pricier to Brazil right now but the government is hoping to entice travelers in other ways. It usually takes tourists anywhere from 30 to 45 days to secure a visa to the South American country. But in June, the Brazil ministries of Tourism and Foreign Relations began waiving the full visa process for citizens holding passports the U.S., Japan, Canada and Australia to facilitate easier travel to the games. The waiver began June 1 and lasts until Sept. 18—so even if you’re not heading to Rio for the Olympics, you can still take advantage of the program. With the waiver in place, the U.S. Embassy in Brazil says it expects almost 200,000 Americans will travel to the country during the Games-- more than double the 90,000 that travelled to Brazil for the World Cup.
Surry said price volatility could lead to some good fares to Rio — after the Games.
Another indication that bad headlines may not be scaring people away: Foreigners are snapping up hotel rooms. More than 97 percent of Rio's hotels are full, according to the travel site Trivago, but Berman believes that's because Rio has only about 40,000 hotel rooms. "Beijing and London had over 100,000 rooms leading up to their Games," he said. "When you only have 40,000 rooms, you're going to be full."
For travelers who crave hotel alternatives, Airbnb signed on to be Rio 2016's "Official Alternative Accommodation Services Supplier." A quick search recently showed more than 300 available Airbnb listings in Rio for the first week of the Games, with an average price of $283 per night.
Despite Rio's crime problems, officials are struggling to make visitors feel secure. They’re deploying 85,000 police and soldiers to the Games, double the number of security personnel at the 2012 Olympics in London, according to The Associated Press.
"They're doing a lot of good work to counter [the crime problem]," says George Taylor, vice president of global operations for iJet, an international risk management company. "The federal police are setting up different areas where the law is going to have some presence in areas, 24/7."
But "Rio, like many large cities, already has significant street crime," Taylor said. And according to Bloomberg, recent data show double-digit increases in muggings and other street crimes.
"The density of people there will lend itself to pickpockets and other things that take place in really crowded venues," Taylor said. And if people wander away from the common areas and into some of the favelas (Brazilian slums), they could face a lot worse than pickpockets. "Maybe some violent assaults or things like that."
To make things worse, Rio is in the middle of a major labor crisis with its police and emergency workers that “may cause less attention by local law enforcement, which will already be stretched thin due to the massive task of handling the visitors that normally accompanies hosting the Olympics," Taylor said.
Still, he isn’t telling tourists to stay away. He’s telling them to be careful. "Stay in well-lit areas and avoid late-night forays alone or through areas that are not used by other visitors regularly," he said, adding that tourists should avoid flashing valuables and should stick to the well-lit and well-patrolled areas.
They should avoid street protests, too. "If you see gatherings of people that are protesting,” Taylor said, “avoid it or move away from it, especially if police or the local law enforcement or others start arriving in the area."
Construction crews are working furiously to finish a number of venues before the Games begin, and Taylor says he’s hearing that they “should be good to go.”
But while he’s confident the venues will be finished, he’s not so upbeat about a subway expansion intended to take Olympic athletes and fans to them.
"It does appear that the transportation infrastructure that they were trying to increase will probably not be ready," he said, which could make it hard for ticketholders go get to and from events.
"If they're going to take a cab, they need to leave very early just to beat the crowd. If something starts at 10, they probably need to leave at around 7, just to be on the safe side."
If you're walking, Taylor suggests planning different routes, in case one is backed up – and be sure to stay within the secured tourist areas.
Will cellphones work?
Some analysts are concerned that the large number of visitors will put Rio's cellphone infrastructure to the test. In an analysis released earlier this year, the wireless testing company OpenSignal said mobile carriers are having trouble maintaining nationwide coverage of 4G speeds in Brazil, but that Rio has boosted its 4G network's reliability.
Taylor suggests preparing for the worst, just in case.
"If voice does not work, texts or SMS over certain apps usually get through when network overload is causing voice to be disrupted," he said. "If the networks are actually out, then visitors should be prepared to find Wi-Fi and communicate in that manner if they need to."
The Zika virus
Mosquitos that carry Zika are common in Rio, but Olympic officials say the region’s cooler and drier August weather should reduce the mosquito population. Still, visitors are advised to use insect repellant and light-colored, lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and pants. International health officials are advising women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant to stay away entirely from Zika-stricken nations, including Brazil. "It's there," Taylor says of Zika. "I don't want to say it's as bad as the Black Plague, but it is a serious concern that people need to take seriously when they're down there."
Sid Lipsey is a travel and entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @SidLipsey.