ORLANDO — On her first big trip away from her home and parents in Brazil, 14-year-old Juliana Garcia will explore Disney's Caribbean Beach resort, shriek through Universal's Harry Potter ride and gasp at Shamu's acrobatics at Sea World.
But first, there's shopping.
Juliana and 85 other teens in her tour group crowd the counters at Perfumeland Megastore. Sales staff greet them in Portuguese. She bags an iPod Nano ($179.99) and Britney Spears perfume ($40). That's just the appetizer. During her two-week stay, Juliana plans to drop $2,000 shopping.
A day trip to Busch Gardens is on the schedule. But when asked about visiting Tampa, she responded in the international language of bewilderment: "Eh?''
That a well-heeled Brazilian teenager knows all about shopping and entertainment in Orlando and virtually nothing about Tampa is a minor illustration of a major concern: The biggest phenomenon in Florida tourism has largely bypassed the bay area.
Powered by a roaring economy, Brazilians have emerged as Florida's fastest-growing group of overseas visitors and by far the biggest spenders.
Brazil could dethrone the United Kingdom this year as the state's biggest source of overseas visitors; in 2010, the 1.07-million Brazilians who visited Florida trailed the U.K. total by just 232,000.
But those Brazilians spent $1.4 billion in Florida last year, nearly twice the level of their counterparts from the U.K. (Canadians, not included in the overseas tourist numbers, remain No. 1 in terms of both foreign visitors and spending.)
Florida tourism officials tell tales of Brazilians picking clean the shelves at Best Buys and outlet mall stores.
"The classic story is how they fly in with empty suitcases or buy luggage to fill and take home,'' said Rolando Aedo, marketing chief for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"This is power shopping defined,'' he said. "They're more capitalistic and brand-sensitive than we are. It's like a badge of honor.''
But the boom that brought more than 500,000 Brazilians to Miami-Dade and upward of 450,000 to Orlando last year has largely sidestepped Tampa Bay.
Pinellas attracted fewer than 30,000 overnight visitors from all of Latin America in 2010. An estimated 200,000 Brazilians came to Hillsborough last year. But nearly half of them didn't even spend the night.
Busch Gardens is a rare hot spot. Guides herd huge tour groups of kids wearing identical jerseys and T-shirts around the park from mid-June through July, which is winter break in Brazil. But often as not, they arrive by bus from Orlando and return at the end of the day.
"I wish Tampa had the international appeal of those other destinations,'' said Jill Revelle, a Busch Gardens spokeswoman. ''But we're not quite there yet.''
Brazilians typically buy one-price travel packages that include air fare, hotels, attraction tickets, bus trips and meals. Local tourism officials are working to persuade tour operators who put together the packages to offer vacations split between Orlando and the Tampa Bay area.
''It's absolutely the hot market for Florida,'' said D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. "When they've come once or twice, they may want to experience other parts of the state while focusing on the Orlando entities.''
You can't get here from there
But that's not a quick or easy fix.
No airline flies nonstop to Tampa from Brazil — or anywhere else in Latin America other than a weekly flight to Cancun, Mexico.
By contrast, American Airlines has 52 weekly flights from Miami to five cities in Brazil, with a sixth scheduled next year. Brazilian flag carrier TAM also flies nonstop to Miami and Orlando.
''That makes all the difference,'' said Nina Mahoney, marketing director at Tampa's International Plaza, where nearly one-third of shoppers are foreign visitors. Brazilians make up less than 2 percent overall. "It's a difficult challenge,'' she said.
Tampa International Airport officials have targeted Sao Paulo among five destinations they hope to add to their meager roster of overseas flights.
The bay area also lacks the top-of-mind awareness of Miami and Orlando, said Rosana Almeida of the Central Florida Brazilian American Chamber of Commerce in Orlando.
Miami has welcomed Brazilians with luxury stores and international style for two decades. Orlando's tourism agency, VisitOrlando, teamed with Disney, Universal and Sea World two years ago on a $1 million advertising campaign in Brazil with the slogan "Orlando Makes You Smile.''
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater and Hillsborough's tourism agency, Tampa Bay & Co., employ a promoter in Brazil who pitches stories about the area to local television stations. But there is no mass-market consumer advertising of the Tampa Bay area.
Orlando's tourism boss suggests that while German tourists consider beaches the centerpiece of a Florida vacation, Brazilians, who have nice beaches of their own, don't.
"Beaches are not the main driver,'' said Gary Sain, executive director of VisitOrlando. "But the shopping trip is a huge attraction.''
Savings make it a free vacation to Florida
Brazil's economy, the world's ninth largest, continues to surge on the strength of exports and domestic spending by a growing middle class. Unemployment hit a record low 6.4 percent in May.
With Brazil gearing up to host soccer's 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, consumer confidence is brimming. The country's currency, the real, has gained 39 percent against the U.S. dollar since the end of 2008. That makes what Brazilians buy in Florida a relative bargain.
Example: A pair of Mizuno running shoes that sell for $100 at an Orlando Athlete's Foot cost six times as much in Brazil. Heavy import tariffs and sales tax also drive up the price, said manager Douglas Rodrigues.
Tourists shopping at Perfumeland on International Drive talk about their ''free vacation'' bankrolled by all the money they saved shopping in American stores.
"If you come to America, you pay the airline ticket, pay for the park tickets, pay for the hotels and you still save money,'' said Anderson Barreto, the store's marketing manager.
That helps explain why 86 teenagers from Limeira, a city of 270,000 about 90 miles from Sao Paulo, are shopping at his store during their winter break. Tour operators escort the kids.
Juliana Garcia is buying for friends and family as well as herself. She's looking for clothes, sneakers and whatever else catches her eye.
All 30 sales people on the floor speak fluent Portuguese. Sara Costa, a 16-year-old from Orlando, greets three boys just off the bus that brought the group from Orlando International Airport.
She pitches Millionaire perfume, now $39.99 after three price cuts. The same bottle costs upward of $200 in Brazil, she said. New arrivals usually won't begin serious buying until they shop around a little.
But it's not unusual for a teen to then walk outside and ''call Daddy to put a couple thousand more on the (debit) card,'' Costa said. She heads home after the tour group leaves but will return to help with a group of 250 teens scheduled for 7 p.m.
For the day, Perfumeland will host seven groups — six Brazilian and one from Argentina — totaling 691 customers.
"This business follows the Brazilian economy,'' said Alejandro Pezzini, CEO of Perfumeland. "We're immune to the recession. We don't depend on the U.S. economy.''.
Contact Steve Huettel at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.