What's the busiest U.S. Consulate in the world? If you guessed in Mexico or China, you'd be wrong.
It's actually in Brazil, Sao Paulo to be exact. The consulate there is giving a record number of visas to Brazilians who want to visit the U.S. And that is giving a boost to the economies of cities like Miami.
On a recent day, Tiago Dalcien and his girlfriend stand outside the U.S. Consulate in Sao Paulo clutching their passports and other documents. He is a 30-year-old banker; his girlfriend is a doctor.
Like most of the 3,000 people a day who come to apply for a U.S. visa, it's their first time heading to the States, and they'll be hitting New York, and Orlando and Miami, Fla. They're going to go shopping, Dalcien says.
"It's so much cheaper than here. Brazil is incredibly expensive," he says.
Prices are so high because of taxes and import duties and protectionism. For instance, a seahorse glow toy that costs about $15 on Amazon in the U.S. costs $75 in Brazil. Futons start at $1,500. People have even been smuggling electronics from the U.S. to sell here.
Even considering the cost of the ticket — roughly $800 to $1,000 round-trip — Dalcien says, it's worth it to fly to shop in the U.S.
And more and more people are.
A few years ago, the demand for visas overwhelmed the U.S. Consulate in Sao Paulo. Brazil was booming and people wanted to travel. Dennis Hankins, the U.S. consul general there, says it was a crisis.
"Two years ago, Brazilians had to wait five months just to get an interview," he recalls.
The backlog was enormous. The Brazilian government complained. President Obama got involved, ordering that visa processing be accelerated.
Then what the staff in Sao Paulo calls "the surge" happened.
They doubled the numbers of consular staff, expanded the facilities and streamlined operations. Now, people wait two days to get an interview, and each interview lasts only a few minutes. People are in and out in about an hour. Last year, more than a million Brazilians got visas.
Last year, 1.8 million Brazilians visited the U.S., Hankins says, ranking the country No. 6 on the list of highest number of tourists. That number is expected to rise to 2 million in 2013.
And Brazilians spent over $9 billion in the U.S., Hankins says, making them the fifth-largest spenders among foreign tourists in the U.S. And that means big revenues for U.S. companies.
"We talked to some of the big vendors, like Wal-Mart or Target. Stores in the Miami area, they sell clothes counter-seasonal. So in the winter in the U.S., they'll be selling summer clothes because there are so many Brazilian customers, so that's what they are buying," Hankins says.
But increased travel by Brazilians isn't only giving a boost to the U.S. It's having unseen consequences for Brazil as well, in all sorts of areas.
Take culture, for example.
"In these recent years, Brazilians have begun to travel much more ... to visit cultural events or art events, such as art fairs," says Fernanda Feitosa, the founder and director of the Sao Paulo art fair.
And those types of visits — in New York and Miami — are influencing Brazilian tastes and appetites back home.
"Now they want to travel, not going just shopping, but they want to see a museum," she says. "Culture in general is a new item."
Some analysts also say the increasing exposure to how things work in countries like the U.S. played a small part in sparking the recent protest movement by young, middle-class Brazilians.
Patricia Rudge, a 31-year-old professional, has flown to the U.S. four times this year to go shopping and to visit her brother-in-law, who owns a condo there. She talks about shopping in the U.S. with a reverence and enthusiasm usually only heard from religious converts.
She says she gives her many Brazilian friends who are going to the U.S. soon a few tips: Go with your luggage totally empty. Get a digital scale so you don't exceed weight limitations on your luggage. Try to buy things you know you want online, so you don't waste time in stores. If you're staying at a hotel, be sure to confirm the hotel receives the packages.
The list goes on. Most of all, she says, save up before you go. She even buys her Band-Aids in the U.S.
"I'm not crazy. I'm not a crazy consumer," Rudge says. "I just don't want to feel that I'm being fooled by my country. So that's why I buy everything I can there."