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Battling For Brazilians: Broward Challenges Dade For Latin American Tourists

Eric Barton

In the 1980s, after the bolívar crashed and Venezuelans suddenly couldn’t fly to Miami every weekend, a gaita band recorded a sardonic song whose chorus lamented, "Qué triste domingo sin Miami Beach."

How sad Sunday is without Miami Beach.

The ditty reflected the preferential love Latin American tourists have always had for Miami – where their languages are spoken, their foods eaten and their music played. And the love has always been requited, particularly in the past decade, when Latin America’s economies, especially Brazil’s, were booming. Almost 700,000 Brazilians visited Miami-Dade County last year and spent $1.5 billion. Miami, it seemed, would always have the South Florida monopoly on el turista latino.

No más. Fort Lauderdale and Broward County have been gaining market share faster than a São Paulo family can book American Airlines flights on Expedia.com. In fact, since 2010 the number of Brazilians visiting Broward has shot up 73 percent to 520,000 last year, when the county opened its first tourism office in Brazil.

Now Broward has just announced it’s set to turn it up a notch with a new campaign to be launched in January called La Playa Te Queda Bien (The Beach Looks Good On You -- as in Fort Lauderdale Beach).

All of this despite the fact that while Miami-Dade’s population is 65 percent Hispanic, Broward’s is only 26.5 percent. And let’s face it, A1A isn’t Ocean Drive. So why are so many Latin Americans – including my Venezuelan niece, who just spent part of her honeymoon in Fort Lauderdale – penciling less-than-Latino Broward into their itineraries?

For one thing, says a South Florida tourism expert I spoke with, even if Fort Lauderdale Beach isn’t Miami Beach, Miami Beach isn’t Copacabana Beach. That is, folks like Brazilians and Venezuelans and Jamaicans have plenty of their own sublime beaches. What they really want in South Florida are places to buy stuff with overvalued currencies like the Brazilian real, which can rent a lot more cars and purchase a lot more condos here than it can back home.

Which makes the Sawgrass Mills mall in Sunrise one of the most-attractive tourist sites for Latin Americans in South Florida. It is, after all, one of the largest retail complexes in the United States -- a consumerist Emerald City for any Argentine hoping to cram the overhead with the HD TVs and Prada purses the peso can’t snag in Buenos Aires.

And if Fort Lauderdale is the closest seaside city to enjoy and bed down in after filling suitcases with all those (relatively) cheap iPads, then apparently that’s chévere (cool), as Venezuelans say.

But after talking to some Latin Americans here, I think there’s another, less-economic reason for Broward’s recent success in this department.

Latin American tourists, it seems, have grown beyond Miami (and Disney World, which they so often use Miami as a launching pad to travel to). In the 21st Century, for example, a new generation of Latin American visitors speak much more English than they did in the 20th Century, and so landing on more English-dominant turf like Fort Lauderdale isn’t as daunting as it might have been for their parents.

In other words, many Latin Americans don’t use Miami as the tourism security blanket they once did. They feel as comfortable on Las Olas Boulevard as they do on Calle Ocho. Or for that matter, in New York or Chicago or Seattle. Hence, one more factor driving the Broward turista boom.

Especially when the Prada bags are on sale at Sawgrass.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. Read more of his Latin America coverage here.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.