Wealthy revelers head for a Copacabana New Year's Eve

Already a tradition, this year Rio expects 45 million visitors Dec. 31.

When it comes to a millennium night blowout, there are other party towns.

But in this part of the world, where the beaches are golden, the people are gorgeous, and the summer sun is sure to shine, it has to be Rio. Just ask any overworked estate agent or hotel reservations clerk.

"Our minimum stay is five nights, the lowest package costs $8,000, and the most expensive costs $16,000," says Rosana Ferreira, reservations operator at the Othon Palace, one of a string of ritzy hotels overlooking the city's famed Copacabana beach.

Nearly every establishment has raised prices by at least 500 percent, with even the smallest hotels charging upwards of $2,500 for a five-day package, breakfast not included.

It is a similar story all along the Avenida Atlantica, the majestic promenade where every New Year's Eve, millions of people gather to salute Iemanj, Afro-Brazilian goddess of the sea. Dressed in her colors of white and light blue, visitors cleanse themselves in the sea and then cast offerings of fruit and flowers into the waves, welcoming in the New Year under a barrage of fireworks.

Traditionally, many of the visitors to Rio are foreigners. But this year the Europeans and North Americans are being priced out of the market, hotel officials say. Most of the big spenders are Brazilians, either wealthy executives from the business capital of So Paulo or industrialists from the south and west of the country. So great is the desire to be near the beach at midnight that even some Rio residents, known as Cariocas, are moving into Copacabana hotels.

One Carioca paid the Othon Palace $16,000 for the five-night deal and said he would only be staying on the 31st. He could spend that and go to New York or Venice. But as one Brazilian pointed out, who wants to spend the biggest night of the millennium in the cold?

"Every year is hot, but this year is special," says Brunno Poli, the reservations manager at the Miramar Palace. "New York, Paris and Sydney are party towns, but Rio is beautiful, and this year it is going to be the place to be."

Authorities are predicting more than 4.5 million visitors will besiege the sultry samba capital this New Year's Eve. More than half of them are expected to head for Copacabana. The most exclusive party is being hosted by Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in an old fort overlooking the beach. All along the waterfront there promises to be partying on an unabashed scale, and in some cases for an unrivaled duration.

Revelers are renting whole apartments, some of them for periods that cover Christmas, New Year's, Carnival in March, and the April celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Brazil.

The classified ads are filled with Cariocas offering their homes on a short-term lease. Decent two-bedroom apartments that might normally go for 1,500 reales (about $750) a month, sell for more than 10 times that.

In a country where 10 percent of the people receive half its income, such outlandish figures disgust some and simply perplex others. "It is not normal. They don't know the value of money," says Paulo do Amparo, a real estate agent who lives and works in Copacabana. "Why would anyone pay all that money just to see fireworks?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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