Three years ago, just six international flights landed each week in Bahia state, the gateway to Brazil's poor, drought-plagued but folklore-rich northeast. Today, visitors stream into two international airports aboard 86 flights per week. Travelers leery of crime-ridden Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's traditional tourist mecca, are being drawn to Bahia's 1,103 km of sun-drenched coastline as an alternative to Rio's Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. Bahia has other attractions, too: gold-studded church interiors in Salvador, the colonial capital; vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture and music; and its own idiosyncratic cuisine, flavored with coconut and hot spices.
Now, though, tourists flocking to Bahia often find themselves sharing the passenger cabin with laptop-toting business travelers. Last year, industry in the traditionally agrarian state grew by 9%, following a 5.8% surge in 1992. A bit bigger than France in area, with a population of 12 million, Bahia is gradually freeing itself from centuries of dependence on the ups and downs of commodities such as cocoa and sugar. It's also working to shed its aura of backwardness, corruption, and strongman rule. That image has been transmitted in dozens of languages through the novels of Jorge Amado, a famous native son. His Bahia is part tropical Carnaval, part grim urban tale of slum dwellers and street children, and part rural life dominated by plantation owners called coroneis, or colonels.
These days, agriculture looks different, especially in western Bahia. Drawn by cheap land at $100 a hectare, agribusiness companies from southern Brazil, such as Ceval, have pushed in to plant soybeans for export. Output jumped to 591,000 tons last year, up from 220,000 tons in 1990.
Industry is sprouting, too. Brazil's No.3 brewer, Kaiser, recently inaugurated a $30 million plant. Copene, Latin America's biggest ethylene producer, spent $1.1 billion in recent years to double the capacity of its plant, to 910,000 tons per year. A joint venture between papermaker Suzano and mining giant Vale do Rio Doce has plowed in $1.5 billion since 1987 to become one of Brazil's biggest pulp producers. And Ucar Produtos de Carbono, South America's only maker of graphite electrodes for the steel industry, is aggressively exporting its products.
The drawback in much of Bahia's new industry--petrochemicals, irrigated farming, pulp production--is that it employs mostly capital, not people. "Bahia is growing around the edges," says economist Armando Avena, "but there is a mass of misery in the middle where 4.5 million people live." Even so, former Governor Antonio C. Magalhes sees progress. Twenty years ago, when Bahia was limited to agriculture, he says, the current slump in world cocoa prices "would have generated absurd levels of hunger statewide."