The hotels Brazil needs for the World Cup never got built

The Gavea Tourist is an empty shell of a hotel, a 14-story modernist monument of disintegrating concrete and decaying beauty that has been abandoned for four decades. It is one of three huge, architecturally stunning ghost hotels in Rio de Janeiro, all of which are vacant in a city facing a shortage of rooms for June’s World Cup soccer tournament.

Rio could use the Gavea Tourist’s 400-odd rooms. Instead, it is an emblem of the obstacles that hinder Brazil’s World Cup preparations: cumbersome bureaucracy, a slow-moving judiciary and a lack of imaginative planning.

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“The bureaucracy is phenomenal. The technical capacity of the Brazilian state to produce infrastructure . . . is very low,” said Christopher Gaffney, visiting professor in architecture and urbanism at Rio’s Federal Fluminense University.

Just a few miles from Rio’s tourist beaches, the hotel stands on concrete pillars in splendid, crumbling isolation in a tropical forest. Its terrace offers breathtaking views of Pedra da Gavea mountain, Sao Conrado beach, and the glittering blue sea beyond.

Bullet holes riddle its lower walls and pockmark wrecked cars that have been crammed into a sort of hole. Graffiti call a police officer a thief. Creepers wind through the circular air vents on the staircase, and most of the marble stairs and blue bathroom tiles have long since been cannibalized.

Isabel da Silva, 48, and her husband Ronaldo, 60, who run a restaurant in the nearby Vila Canoas favela, or slum, built their first shack with wood paneling from the hotel, sold to them, they said, by a security guard. “It is a paradise up there,” Ronaldo said. “I’ve lived here for 38 years and it’s been abandoned the whole time.”

Rooms average $461 a night

According to the Brazilian Hotel Industry Association, Rio has about 34,000 rooms, 22,000 of which are in conventional hotels. An additional 6,000 will be added by June, the group says.

The mayor’s office expects 1.5 million tourists during the World Cup. A spokeswoman said that not all of them will be in the city at the same time and that with alternative accommodations such as private rental apartments and bed-and-breakfasts, there will be room for everyone.

That may be unduly optimistic — 49 of the 89 Rio hotels on the FIFA official accommodation site are already reserved for groups such as the news media or appear online to be fully booked. Reports abound of sky-high rates. “There is high demand and a lack of offer, so the prices are very high,” Gaffney said.

A survey last year by Brazilian tourist board Embratur showed that Rio hotel prices for the tournament had soared to an average of $461 a night.

One company, in an effort to provide budget accommodations, is mounting a “football fan camp” with tent sites for 3,000 people.

The worried government held a meeting last month with Rio hotel industry representatives to discuss allegations of “abusive prices.”

It was agreed that hotel prices in Rio for the World Cup should not outpace rates during the high-demand periods of Carnival and New Year’s. It was also decided that hotel Web sites would publish average prices for accommodations in high-demand periods.

The Gavea Tourist was planned as a time-share hotel. Work began in 1953 and ended in 1972. Its owners went bankrupt, leaving more than 1,000 time-share holders with nothing. The hotel sank into a legal quagmire.

It is now owned by GV2 Producoes, which acquired it at auction in 2011.

But a renovation cannot begin until GV2 has the final legal documentation confirming that it owns the building, which is held up in Brazil’s notoriously complicated bureaucracy. And until it obtains that documentation, the hotel cannot benefit from tax breaks that Rio has made available for hotel development, GV2 director Jamil Suaiden said.

Brazil’s government development bank agreed to provide $378 million in financing for 10 Rio hotels under a program called ProCopa Turismo, or Tourism for the Cup. Three have opened, and two more will open by June, a development bank spokesman said.

Gaffney, the professor of urbanism, says the government could have introduced more inventive measures to boost the number of hotel rooms while at the same time addressing the city’s housing problem.

“You could make hotels temporary. You could have hotels for the World Cup that could be turned into housing,” he said. “There’s a lack of creativity, a lack of imagination on the part of the organizers.”

‘A white elephant’

The funds provided by the development bank included $82 million for another ghost hotel, the art deco Hotel Gloria, in central Rio.

Built in 1922, the hotel has been closed since 2008, when it was bought by a company owned by businessman Eike Batista. Batista’s EBX Group declined to comment on the hotel. Renovations appear to have come to a halt — there is no sign of any activity on the premises and a security guard, who declined to give his name, said no work had been done for six months.

None of that development bank money was directed toward a third iconic Rio ghost hotel: the Nacional, an imposing glass-and-steel modernist cylinder not far from the Gavea Tourist in Sao Conrado.

The Nacional was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, an iconic figure in Brazilian architecture who was also responsible for much of the country’s modernist capital, Brasilia, an entire city built in 41 months in a desert during the late 1950s. The Nacional has been empty since 1995 and was bought at auction in 2009 for $35 million by businessman Marcelo Henrique Limírio Gonçalves.

A proposed deal with the InterContinental Hotels Group led to hopes that the Nacional would open for the World Cup. But the deal did not materialize, and the hotel remains boarded up. The last time Rio noticed its existence was when pop star Justin Bieber sprayed graffiti on its walls during a wild weekend in November.

In Vila Canoas, residents hope that the Gavea Tourist will be renovated, bringing jobs and income to the favela. “It is a white elephant,” Isaias da Silva, 59, honorary president of the residents association, said from behind the counter of his hardware store.

Lawyer Frederico Trotta, who has worked on the Gavea Tourist case for decades, having inherited it from his lawyer father, said tests have shown the hotel can still be saved.

But worker Silvio Veiga, 49, looked doubtingly at the rotten ironwork protruding from one of the hotel’s supporting concrete pillars. “They will have to knock it down and start again,” he said.

 
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