TAMPA — This could be the start of a beautiful trade relationship.
But it's just the start, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn emphasized Monday as the region's economic development elite gathered to tout their recent business development and trade mission to one of the world's powerhouse economies, Brazil.
Last week, the 48-member delegation spent five days meeting with counterparts in the worlds of academia, business, politics, research, tourism and trade in the Brazilian cities of São Paulo and Porto Alegre, Tampa's new sister city.
It was Tampa Bay's first official trade mission to Brazil on its own (the bay area tagged along during the governor's 2011 mission). It was also the bay area's largest trade mission ever, joined by the University of South Florida, Tampa International Airport, the Port of Tampa, the Visit Tampa Bay tourism agency and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
"This is the beginning of a very, very long relationship with Brazil," Buckhorn said. "They are already one of our largest trading partners. If you go to Busch Gardens, you already see Brazilians everywhere. You see the yellow and green. You hear the Portuguese throughout the park.
"We need more of that. We want more of that."
Rick Homans, chief executive officer for the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., said he expects this first trip to result in "millions" in new contracts for local companies that took part in the trip. No new deals were announced Monday, but the EDC said it would announce the total dollar figure of those contracts once they've been verified.
"The goal of the mission was to open and strengthen a multitude of relationships," Homans said, "for Visit Tampa Bay, for USF, for the port, the airport, the EDC and the businesses we took with us. We were spinning a lot of plates during the five days we were down there, and we expect there to be real and specific outcomes."
The mission wouldn't have been feasible without Panamanian carrier Copa Airlines' new Tampa-to-Panama City route, which will begin Dec. 16. It will be the Tampa Bay area's first direct flight to a major Latin American hub. That means seven Brazilian cities and 55 other cities throughout Central and South America will be within one connecting flight of the bay area, according to airport officials.
Copa officials accompanied the bay area delegation. One of the mission's most important goals was to promote and sell the new air route to Brazilian business and tourism entities.
"It was so cumbersome for them to do business with us before," Homans said. "But with Copa in place, that makes Brazil a very attractive location."
Tampa Bay's tourism agencies — Visit St. Pete/Clearwater (Pinellas) and Visit Tampa Bay (Hillsborough) — have been traveling to Brazil for years to push the bay area. But the Copa flights will give Tampa Bay the chance to compete against Miami and Orlando for Brazilian tourists.
"We've been in Brazil for over 15 years," said Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada. "But this trip was so special because the entire cavalry was there."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jthalji on Twitter.