Four-star hotel sign

Photo © Michael Sommers.

One of my earlier travel memories is of a family trip to France in which I discovered not only pain au chocolat and chestnut trees, but stars. I don’t mean stars as in celestial bodies, but stars as in the precise and pointed symbols, assembled in ones, twos, and threes, that conferred worthiness on every single route, sight, and natural attraction enclosed within the green Michelin guides that my mother religiously toted around.

Although I was barely into my double-digits, I quickly absorbed the Truth that 1-star listings were to be snubbed, 2-star listings were worthy of being pondered, and 3-star listings signaled “Visit Me or Else”.

For my vacationing family, the star system functioned as shorthand for both affordability and quality.

Aside from the multiple green guides, my parents had also invested in a weightier tome, the Michelin Guide Rouge, between whose red covers lay a galaxy of star-studded restaurants and hotels covering the entire nation of France.

While my parents often referred to the “red guide”, they didn’t defer to it. In fact, when it came time to bed down for the night, we often cruised around whatever town or village we happened to be in, and narrowed down likely candidates by scoping out a hotel’s façade and taking note of the number of stars posted prominently near the entrance.

These stars—ranging in number from one to four (and, since 2008, five)—were (and still are) conferred upon hotels by the French Ministry of Tourism. In France, a hotel’s “star status” is arrived at by taking into consideration 22 factors, varying from room size and soundproofing to the design of bathroom facilities. Ratings have nothing to do with subjective or aesthetic concerns such as character, décor or charm.

For my vacationing family, the star system functioned as shorthand for both affordability and quality. However, as time passed, and the number of nights in hotels escalated, the solar system blurred as we realized that sometimes 2-stars were more charming than 3-stars while 2-stars could prove cheaper than 1-stars. It became clear that relying on stars to guide you on your travels could steer you in the right direction, but didn’t always take you exactly where you wanted to go.

The reason I’m musing upon stars is that this coming week, the Brazilian Minister of Tourism will officially inaugurate the Sistema Brasileiro de Classificação de Meios de Hospedagem (SBClas), a standard classification system that will follow France (and many other countries) in awarding 1 to 5 stars to hotels based on the level of comfort and quality of services offered to guests. Actually, Brazil’s new star system will cover seven types of accommodations: hotels; pousadas (inns, guesthouses, or small, often family-run hotels); resorts; fazenda hotels (ranch or farm accommodations such as those found in the Pantanal); cama e cafés (bed and breakfasts); historic hotels, and flats/apart hotels.

In order to be awarded their stars, establishments have to register with the Minister of Tourism and then await a visit from an inspector of the National Institute of Metrolology, Standardization, and Industrial Quality (Inmetro), who will personally check out its facilities out before deciding upon a rating.

This isn’t the first time that the Brazilian government has attempted to impose a star standard on the country’s considerable range of accommodations (a similar effort launched in 2002 was subsequently aborted). This time, however, the government has some serious impetus. An estimated 600,000 overseas visitors are expected to invade Brazil when it hosts the World Cup in 2014. The hope is that foreign tourists weaned on the star system will be able to better navigate the sometimes hard-to-fathom waters of the Brazilian accommodation sector.