Brazil offers e-visa to Americans in bid to increase tourism

FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2018 file photo, a woman stands in a doorway smoking a cigarette as soldiers take part in a surprise operation in the Jacarezinho slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Starting Thursday, Jan. 25, Brazil is making it easier and cheaper for Americans to apply for a visa following a decline in the number of visitors from the U.S. in recent years. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 25, 2017 file photo, a tourist takes a selfie with the Christ the Redeemer statue illuminated in orange to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Starting Thursday, Jan. 25, Brazil is making it easier and cheaper for Americans to apply for a visa following a decline in the number of visitors from the U.S. in recent years. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2018 file photo, people watch fireworks exploding over Copacabana beach during New Year's celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Starting Thursday, Jan. 25, Brazil is making it easier and cheaper for Americans to apply for a visa following a decline in the number of visitors from the U.S. in recent years.(AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2018 file photo, members of a samba school parade along Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Starting Thursday, Jan. 25, Brazil is making it easier and cheaper for Americans to apply for a visa following a decline in the number of visitors from the U.S. in recent years. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

SAO PAULO — Brazil is making it easier and cheaper for Americans to apply for a visa following a decline in the number of visitors from the U.S. in recent years.

Starting Thursday, Americans can complete the visa process completely online, instead of visiting a consulate or paying an expeditor to do so. The price of the visa will drop from $160 to $40.

The new e-visa program has already been put in place for Australians, Japanese and Canadians as part of Brazil's efforts to attract more foreign tourists.

South America's biggest country offers a wide variety of destinations for visitors, from eco-tourism in the Amazon rain forest to colonial towns built by the Portuguese to miles and miles of unspoiled beaches. Yet in 2016, Brazil welcomed fewer than 6.6 million foreigners, about half the number that traveled to the city-state of Singapore.

American visits have dropped in recent years. Their numbers fell from approximately 657,000 in 2014 to 576,000 in 2015. In 2016, the year Rio de Janeiro hosted the Olympics, the number fell further to approximately 570,000.

"The federal government for a long time didn't understand the economic importance of tourism: no actions to promote destinations, no partnerships with operators to attract visitors, to diversify tourism," Tourism Minister Marx Beltrao said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. "Tourism became part of the economic agenda just a year and a half ago."

In addition to implementing the e-visa, Beltrao said the current administration is trying to make travel to and within Brazil cheaper by allowing increased foreign investment in domestic airlines. It is also hoping to quadruple the budget of Embratur, Brazil's tourism board, and is working to overhaul its promotion strategy.

Brazil has very real challenges to confront, including high rates of violent crime in some areas, the steep cost of travelling within the country and repeated disease outbreaks. A Zika outbreak that began in 2015 put off many would-be travelers after the mosquito-borne virus was linked to severe birth defects. This year, a yellow fever outbreak is spreading just weeks before Carnival.

The World Health Organization now recommends foreigners visiting anywhere in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro states get a yellow fever vaccination before traveling, though Beltrao and other Brazilian officials have said urban areas are safe.

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