Angra dos Reis airport expansion: developing ‘the Brazilian Cancun’


There are resort areas around the world which would like make the leap to being international standard ones but they lack the airport facilities to do that.

One of them is Angra dos Reis in Brazil, with its beaches, islands and historical monuments, and a state park. It lies between Brazil's two largest cities but accessibility is not easy; it is not even on a passenger rail line, and road travel is difficult.

Now the government has thrown its weight behind a scheme to extend the small general aviation airport there with the ambitious hope that it can one day attract sufficient commercial traffic to allow Angra dos Reis to compete with Mexico's Cancún in the tourism stakes.

However, there are many impediments along the way to attaining that goal.

  • Angra dos Reis airport in Brazil is set to be expanded in order to compete with Mexico's Cancún as a tourist resort.
  • The expansion will allow the airport to handle ATR72-sized aircraft, but it will still be limited to small propeller aircraft.
  • Angra dos Reis is located between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, but it lacks easy accessibility, with no rail service and difficult road travel.
  • The airport is not part of Brazil's national concession program and will be developed as a public-private partnership (PPP), with the state retaining responsibility for the runway.
  • Environmental issues and proximity to a nuclear power plant pose challenges for the development of Angra dos Reis as a tourist destination.
  • Cabo Frio in Rio de Janeiro state is suggested as a better alternative for becoming the "new Cancún" due to its superior beaches, existing international airport, and potential for tourism infrastructure development.


  • The small Angra dos Reis airport between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo is to be expanded in the hope that the region will be able to rival Cancún as a tourist resort.
  • But the airport will still only be able to handle small propeller aircraft.
  • The city/resort/region lies between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo but is not easily accessible, as there is no rail service - actual or planned. But a regular bus connection with Rio's airport would help.
  • The airport is not in the national concession programme and it is to be developed as a PPP, with the State retaining responsibility for the runway.
  • There are environmental issues to contend with, as ever, but a local consultant believes the project is feasible, especially if Brazil changes its stance on gambling
  • The coast around Cabo Frio in Rio de Janeiro state is proposed as a better alternative

Expansion of a small general aviation airport means it can handle ATR72-sized aircraft

At the end of Jul-2020 Brazil's Minister of Infrastructure Tarcísio de Freitas, via Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, announced that the Ministry would launch the tender process for the expansion of Angra dos Reis Airport in Aug-2020.

The airport is operated by the State of Rio de Janeiro, specifically by ANGRA AERO-PORTOS LTDA.

Aerial view of Angra dos Reis airport

Mr Freitas said: "It is important to promote the tourism and to start transforming Angra into the Brazilian Cancún".

The project includes expansion of the apron, construction of RESA at both runway heads, and extension of the runway from 900m to approximately 1200m. Mr Freitas stated that the airport would have the capacity to handle ATR 42 and ATR 72 (with restrictions) upon completion of the project.

It seems to be quite a modest expansion if the objective is to replicate Cancún, the Mexican resort that received 6.15 million international visitors in 2019 and whose airport, the 133rd largest in the world right now by seat capacity, handled 25.5 million passengers also in that year.

The ultimate resort but blighted by drug crime

Cancún is the ultimate resort, with spectacular white sand beaches, turquoise blue seas, water activities and adventures, golf, Mayan culture, international cuisine, spa facilities, exclusive shopping centres, handicraft markets and bars, and nightclubs boasting an 'incomparable' nightlife.

Cancún has also handled the COVID-19 pandemic particularly well, being the first tourist destination in the Americas - and one of the first few in the world - to receive the 'Safe Travels' global safety and hygiene approval from the World Travel & Tourism Council when it reopened for business on 08-Jun-2020. The stamp indicates that the destination has implemented the new safety measures for travellers that WTTC has recognised and approved.

On the other hand, the resort has developed a reputation for drug-related crime and as ever in Mexico, less touristy, more seedy, areas are never far away.

Tourism authorities argue, however, that the homicide rate has declined, that Cancún was never in the top 10 Mexican cities for drug murders anyway, and that tourists are totally safe as long as they stay within the beaches and hotel and entertainment zones and don't wander off into the barrio.

All this is important for Angra dos Reis to get to grips with, as well as its airport expansion, if it seriously seeks to mimic Cancún, and one must assume - as the autocratic President Bolsonaro is involved - that it is serious in that aspiration.

The two resorts are similar but different

There are both similarities and differences between Cancún and Angra dos Reis. The population of the former is approximately 700,000, and the latter 200,000 in the region, identifying both as 'mid-sized' cities, albeit at opposite ends of that scale.

Cancún stands in splendid isolation at the eastern tip of Mexico, in Quintana Roo state, 150km across the Caribbean Sea from Cuba. It needs an airport to support its international tourist trade, otherwise the nearest main one would be 200km away; indeed, Cancún is the 'anchor' airport of the Mexican airports operated by Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste (ASUR), the most aggressive of the three privatised Mexican groups, which also has interests in Colombia and Puerto Rico.

Location of Cancún in Mexico

Location of Angra dos Reis in Brazil, between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo

No rail connection to Brazil's two largest cities, despite lying between them

Angra dos Reis is quite different. Located on the Atlantic coast, as are all of Brazil's resort cities, it lies between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the two largest cities.

It is closer to Rio de Janeiro, on the meandering 101 highway that runs between the two cities in a similar way to US Highway #1, which wanders between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It is a single lane road rather than dual carriageway for much of its length, and with speed controls that limit vehicles to 60 km/h.

There is no direct rail line between the two cities, but a high-speed line may be built this decade (having been planned and tendered during the 2010s for the 2014 World Cup) and a 'hyperloop' line has also been mooted, though that remains unproven technology.

Strangely, Angra dos Reis is not located on the proposed high-speed rail line, which would run 25 km to the north.

Proposed high-speed rail line connecting Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo

That is strange, because the high-speed rail line will connect not only the cities but the airports of Galeão (Rio de Janeiro), Guarulhos (São Paulo) and the cities of Campinas and Viracopos to the north of São Paulo, which jointly have another international airport.

If the Brazilian government was serious about raising Angra dos Reis' profile to that of Cancún, then it would be expected that they would include it on the rail line; unless there was also to be some form of fast connection or people mover from Barra Mansa, which in the current plans is only one stop from Galeão airport and two from the main station in downtown Rio (which is easily accessible from Rio's other airport, the domestic Santos Dumont).

Rio could be the airport for the resort?

It might be argued that the resort could still be served by air through Rio de Janeiro, for international visitors in particular, as Galeão Airport is right next to the 101 highway, or 'Avenida Brasil' as it is at that point. Accordingly, a frequent express bus service might suffice, though the journey could easily take two hours or more, and a lot more during the city's notorious rush hours.

But if Angra dos Reis is to be expanded, what does it amount to right now? What degree of scaling is needed to project it into such hallowed company?

The answer is: a lot.

According to the CAPA Airport Profiles, Angra dos Reis Airport is "a regional facility currently catering to business and other general aviation aircraft, with no commercial services. The airport underwent an upgrade in 2014 in order for it to receive commercial services. The developments were part of the Brazilian Government's regional aviation programme."

The nature of that programme is changing in the light of the government's staggered concession scheme, which it introduced in 2011 and which has resulted in concessions granted already on some of the airports mentioned here - Galeão, Guarulhos, and Campinas Viracopos, in addition to other major cities and the capital city's airport at Brasília.

Most, not all, can be considered reasonably successful. Campinas Viracopos is to be retendered.

Not in the national concession programme

But the nature of the concession scheme has changed latterly, with recent tranches (they are now up to the sixth - due this year while Brazil is reeling from the onslaught of coronavirus - and seventh, in 2021) focusing on smaller regional airports that the government has concessioned out, or will do so, in clusters, with an anchor airport wherever possible.

Even so, Angra dos Reis is not yet counted among any of the tranches; it is simply too small even to be included in a cluster.

At the same time the role of Infraero, the state airport operator that used to be all-powerful before the concession scheme began, continues to change as well. An emasculated Infraero has been left with small rural airports to manage and mentor, in order to prepare them for privatisation.

For example, in May-2020 Infraero signed a contract with the Government of Guarujá, according to which Infraero would administer Guarujá Airport over the next 12 months and, coincidentally, prepare it to begin to receive aircraft in the class of the ATR 42 and ATR 72, similarly to the plan for Angra dos Reis but followed later by the Boeing 737-700.

It will be a PPP model with airside responsibility remaining with the State

Returning to Angra dos Reis, according to André Soutelino, a Brazilian aviation consultant and legal specialist, the airport is bidding not only for a runway extension but also a terminal complex. It will be under a PPP model where the private sector only manages the terminal (landside). Airside improvements will continue to be done by the State.

Such a scheme would run in parallel with the formal government concession tranches involving Infraero-run airports, and also with what individual states are doing with their small airports that were not previously managed by Infraero (but which are increasingly been acquired by Infraero for the reasons mentioned above).

But the ambition here is what sets Angra dos Reis apart. And that ambition will not be realised until it can receive large jets from international cities and process passengers directly through to a safe, high standard vacation environment, with all amenities. It is some way off that yet.

If and when it achieves it, then it can start to compare itself with Cancún.

Issues with the environment and a nuclear power plant at the same time

But Mr Soutelino does not believe Angra dos Reis will be the new Cancún.

On one hand, there are lots of environmental issues there. The sea and the rainforest are protected. And it is quite close to a nuclear power plant.

On the other hand, there is a huge potential for tourism. With the extension, charter flights will be a reality but not necessarily regular scheduled operations. He also believes in the potential for a seaplane operation between Rio de Janeiro and Angra and São Paulo and Angra.

And he concludes with a telling comment. The area can attract more tourists if Brazil allows gambling.

Is Cabo Frio a better candidate to be the new Cancun?

Mr Soutelino went on to say that in Rio de Janeiro state there is a city that could better be the 'new Cancun'. It is called Cabo Frio and possesses beaches that are claimed to be superior to Cancun's, and there is the space to build tourism infrastructure. Besides, the airport is international and the 2,550m x 45m runway has handled large Antonov aircraft operations.

According to CAPA Airport Profiles, Cabo Frio International Airport serves the city of Cabo Frio in Brazil's southeastern Rio de Janeiro state. The airport initially operates as a cargo-only facility, and state-owned oil company Petrobras maintains a dedicated terminal at the airport in support of its operations in the Campos basin. The airport is publicly owned but privately operated.

Since Oct-2011 the airport has been administrated by the private company Libra Aeroportos, using the name Costa do Sol Operadora Aeroportuária, as a concession from the Municipality of Cabo Frio.

A Cabo Frio beach