On an Olympic wave

Rio Grande do Norte, the “shoulder” in Brazil’s north-eastern corner, is the country’s nearest point to Europe. Reached in just over six hours’ flying time from Portugal, the “elephant-shaped” state has been attracting foreign attention of late, due to favourable market conditions, economic initiatives and news that Brazil is to host both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Natal, Rio Grande do Norte’s capital, has been selected as one of the 12 World Cup venues.

Largely low-rise and relatively sparsely populated by Brazilian city standards (it is home to approximately 800,000 people), coastally located Natal is not always kindly referred to as an “illuminated farm”. The agricultural reference is apt. The north-east is the vast country’s fruit and vegetable basket. It’s also rich in minerals, oil and natural gas. Latterly, the construction of residential and commercial buildings has undergone huge growth in the region.

“There is real demand in the Natal regional area estimated at 130,000 units,” says Renato Garcia, managing director of RG Salamanca Investments, former secretary of state for Tourism and ex-McKinsey consultant. “Previously, people needed houses but had insufficient income, interest rates were too high and mortgage terms were not long enough. Now that’s changed and is likely to remain that way for a long time.” Demand at the lowest social level is lifting the rest of the market.

Caixa Economica, the state mortgage bank, has in the past 12 months financed 10,600 units for the Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My Home, My Life) programme and 6,000 units for other segments of the market. A study, conducted by HVS Consulting & Valuation and Newmark Knight Frank, into the real estate and tourism sectors for Brazil’s north-east, noted that by 2014 more than 7,200 new units for second residences will be built – 480 of them luxury, aimed at the “high end” leisure sector.

Emblematic of the trend towards luxury resorts aimed at the foreign buyer is Tropical D’Santo Cristo Beach Resort. The boutique resort is situated less than half a mile from the main beach and centre of the low-rise beach resort of São Miguel do Gostoso. Latterly discovered by kitesurfers and windsurfers because of the year-round warm Aliseo wind that provides ideal conditions, the town has grown up with a Bohemian vibe reminiscent of a Thai backpackers’ destination.

Exuberantly painted shops, pousadas (small guest houses), restaurants – Thai, pizza and sushi to name a few – and bars line the paved high street and the sand pathways that lead down to the broad, golden beach. Marcos Böhler, a native of São Paulo, a city of 20m in the south of Brazil, has recently moved to São Miguel do Gostoso (population under 1m). A graphic designer, Böhler says Gostoso is one of the coolest places he’s ever visited, where you can breathe and be free to do what you want to do.

Trond Aavik, a Norwegian businessman, who is married to a Brazilian woman, Luizze, describes São Miguel do Gostoso as a special place for special people. “The town attracts a pretty relaxed, cool crowd,” he says. “Until fairly recently almost no one knew about the place. It was a best-kept secret but in the past year or two its reputation has grown nationally and internationally. Brazilians from the wealthier southern cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have discovered the town, and kitesurfers from Italy, Spain, the Netherlands – you name it – have spread the word.”

Aavik is developing Tropical D’Santo Cristo Beach Resort. The stylish contemporary apartments and bungalows will utilise the latest sustainable technological advances and production techniques. They will be built from a prefabricated system, which is cast off site and erected on site, constructed like Lego pieces. The system, developed by local company Predesign, is four times stronger than conventional concrete-formed structures. The production method saves on construction waste and time, by up to 50 per cent, with commensurate embodied energy and CO2 savings.

Any timber used on site will be from accredited sources and has a chain-of-custody certification. The desire to limit the resort’s carbon footprint and develop sustainably and in harmony with the local ecology is informed by Aavik’s long-held environmental beliefs. “The resort’s ethos is to conserve natural resources, eliminate waste and remain ecologically in balance,” he says. “We will preserve what we are able and develop with an awareness of the beautiful local environment.”

All private bungalows in the development will have individual solar thermal and PV panels for water heating and for the production of electricity for basic lighting. Water conservation will be practised through the installation of both airflow taps and low-flush mechanisms on toilets. Rainwater is harvested for use in pools, once treated, and for irrigation purposes. Wastewater will be treated and recycled for irrigation. Property prices start from R$118,000 (£43,885) for a studio apartment.

The awareness of and desire not to despoil the local environment is echoed by British-Portuguese developer the Elements Club. The company has outlined plans to build 150 properties in São Miguel do Gostoso, centred around a Six Senses spa, several hundred metres along from Tropical D’Santo Cristo Beach Resort. Plans are at an early stage, says spokesperson Priscilla Alves. “We are applying for all the necessary permissions. It is likely to be next year before we market the project.”

Individual homes to buy do not often come on to the local market. One property for sale is a pousada, Lagoa Mar, which opened three years ago. Built and run by a Portuguese mother-and-son team, Lagoa Mar has six guest rooms in the verdant grounds as well as a one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartment in the main house. Room rates are R$220 (£83) per night in high season. Located 200 metres from the beach at São Miguel do Gostoso, the owner of the eclectic abode – think wind chimes, Buddha and hammocks – is seeking R$2.5m to sell the property and enterprise as a going concern.

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