Artifacts at the Museu Afro Brasil in Sao Paulo show the diversity of cultures that were brought from Africa to Brazil through Portugal's extensive slave trade. The country's population is now more than half black or mixed-race. Photo by Juan Guillen.

Editor’s note: Paul Varian, retired CNN writer, editor and senior executive producer, visited Sao Paulo on a trip sponsored by Delta Air Lines Inc. and supported by the Consulate General of Brazil in Atlanta.

Preparing for its return to the world stage as host of the 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil is trying to recruit tourists as it once recruited the immigrants who helped create the nation’s rich cultural diversity.

Brazil had a million visitors during the 2014 World Cup, which had multiple venues around the country. Tourism officials say that number could double for the Olympics, which will be held almost exclusively in Rio de Janeiro.

But Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, is a focal point of efforts to attract more visitors from abroad now. Home to 70 different nationalities, it is the nation’s business center and showcase for its creative and artistic energy.

Brazil’s economic woes have positioned the city as a bargain destination for American travelers, relatively speaking, with the dollar now worth four times as much as the real, whose value against the greenback has nearly halved over two years of weak growth.

That brings a silver lining to the sales pitch of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc., which operates flights from Atlanta to Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia, and from both New York and Detroit to Sao Paulo. 

“What used to be one of the most expensive cities in the world is now very accessible,” Luciano Macagno, country director for in Brazil, told U.S.-based reporters visiting Sao Paulo on a tour sponsored by Delta and supported by the Consulate General of Brazil in Atlanta and tourism officials in Sao Paulo.

“It is so affordable,” said Swiss-born Gil Zanchi, the country manager for Marriott Hotels in Brazil who lived and worked in Atlanta for eight years. “You can go out for an amazing dinner for four for about $60. Flights are under $1,000. The beaches are amazing.”

Not all flights are that cheap, especially nonstops from Atlanta, but the flagging economy is one reason Brazil is aiming to market its cultural heritage to overseas tourists, with Sao Paulo poised to capitalize on its historic legacy as an entry point for foreigners into the continent-sized country.

Founded by 16th-century Jesuit missionaries, the city was the first stop for waves of Europeans responding to a different kind of financial lure — paid jobs on the country’s coffee plantations after the former Portuguese colony became the last of the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888.

“The Monument of Immortal Glory To The Founders” serves as a tribute to Sao Paulo’s embrace of its many and varied nationalities. Photo by Oromi Leon.

Over a period of 91 years, the Immigration Hostelry, Brazil’s landlocked counterpart to New York’s Ellis Island, processed, fed and sheltered 2.5 million of the newly arrived before discharging them into the workforce, including children as young as 12.

The earliest Europeans — actively recruited in their home countries by emissaries from Brazil —​ came from Italy and Germany, then Portugal, Spain, Russia, Lithuania and Ukraine.

Peasants from Japan also flocked to the coffee farms, so many that Brazil is now home to more 1.5 million Japanese, more than any country outside Japan, with an estimated 1 million in Sao Paulo alone.

Brazil’s earliest workforce was made up of enslaved Africans. At least 5 million — more than 10 times as many as those kidnapped from their homes for a life of forced labor in the United States — toiled in the gold and silver mines, sugar cane fields and coffee farms over 370 years.

Their descendants, along with recent refugees from African nations, comprise a significant segment of the country’s rich ethnic mix. Today, more than half of Brazil’s 200 million people are black or mixed-race.

The Golden Age of Coffee already was well under way by the time paid workers replaced the slaves. Brazil became a near monopoly, accounting for 75 percent of the world’s coffee exports before the industry collapsed, temporarily, in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street stock market crash.

In later years, Brazil lost share to competing nations but is still the world’s largest exporter, with just under a third of the global market.

After slavery was abolished in 1888, Brazil's coffee plantations imported labor from Europe and elsewhere. Photo by Oromi Leon.
After slavery was abolished in 1888, Brazil’s coffee plantations imported labor from Europe and elsewhere. Photo by Oromi Leon.

Our group visited the Coffee Museum in Santos, the nation’s railroad hub and the port from which Brazil exported 95 percent of its coffee, as well as the Immigration Museum that had served as the Sao Paulo hostelry during the late 19th Century and much of the 20th.

The Immigration Museum features a wall inscribed with the 16,000 most common names of the hostelry’s guests, a sprawling replica of the barracks where they slumbered in bunk beds and a pictorial tribute to Ellis Island.

Its message: “Don’t be threatened by immigration and diversity — encourage it,” said Marilia Bonas Conte, whose Italian grandfather was among those who passed through the hostelry. Now, she is executive director of both facilities, which honor intertwined Brazilian aspects of Brazil’s history.

“Sao Paulo is the most cosmopolitan city in Brazil because of the immigrants’ contributions — buildings, city expansion, diverse musical traditions,” Ms. Bonas said.

The small, triangularly shaped village of its fledgling days five centuries ago has blossomed into the world’s seventh largest city, which has much to offer visitors behind the bricks and glass of its skyscrapers and apartment buildings.

In our five days shuttling about the bustling metropolis, our group:

The stadium in Santos where Pele launched his illustrious soccer career.
The stadium in Santos where Pele launched his illustrious soccer career. Photo by Oromi Leon.

–Strolled along a stunning beach on the picturesque coast of nearby Santos where we also were treated to a downtown trolley tour and a locker-room-to-field inspection of the nearly 100-year-old soccer stadium where Pele launched a career that led to unsurpassed worldwide fame. At 75, he still serves as ambassador for the sport.

–Sat amid chanting and drum-pounding fans watching Sao Paulo’s popular Corinthians shut down visiting rivals 3-0 in a state of the art soccer stadium built as the centerpiece for the World Cup.  It also will be one of just a handful of Olympics venues outside Rio de Janeiro.

–Caught fleeting glimpses of wildly colorful graffiti art decorating bohemian pockets of Sao Paulo — the most famous of which is called “Batman’s Alley” — and scrawled across freeway embankments and below underpasses.

The group dined on meat carved off huge skewers called “espetos.” Photo by Oromi Leon.

–Dined on everything from assorted Brazilian pizza to beef carved off huge skewers called “espetos” by relentlessly roving waiters at a packed steakhouse. “Amazonic ant” was served as the crunchy ninth course of an elegant meal of exquisitely presented fish and meat dishes at the world-renowned D.O.M. restaurant.

The Municipal Market in Sao Paulo. Photo by Jose Cordeiro.

–Enjoyed lunches that featured codfish fried pastries and the popular mortadela (bologna) sandwich at the historic Municipal Market and feijoada, a delicious mixture of black beans and pork over rice,  at another downtown eatery.

Sao Paulo’s charm for visitors masks the hardships facing many Brazilians, with the economy in a recession due in part to the collapse of the global commodity market, following a decade-long middle class boom. The government’s response has been stifled by a bribery scandal involving the state-owned oil company once headed by the nation’s president.

Nearly a million people have lost their jobs in the past year and the strong dollar versus the real is driving up prices on imports along with government and corporate debt.

“Life is so difficult here,” said a man we met on a downtown walking tour who identified himself as Carlos Mattos and said he was a lawyer. “The financial situation is hard. I would like to move to Italy.”

At the immigration museum, half of the former hostelry has been converted into a homeless shelter that provides services for 2,000 needy people a day, turning others away, according to Ms. Bonas — immigrants who can’t find jobs in a country that once recruited them for work.

And in a traditional residential neighborhood populated largely by descendants of earlier waves of immigrants, Ms. Bonas said, the homeless shelter is not a popular place.

“We are a very diverse society, but we have a lot of prejudices and conservative feelings about immigration,” she said.

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