Brazil Pushes Christ Statue as World Wonder

One morning in June, Rio de Janeiro residents awoke to a beeping text message on their cell phones: “Press 4916 and vote for Christ. It’s free!” The same pitch had been popping up all over the city since late January—flashing across an electronic screen every time city-dwellers swiped their transit cards on city buses and echoing on TV infomercials that featured a reality-show celebrity posing next to the city’s trademark Christ the Redeemer statute. Another crusade by evangelical holy rollers? Hardly. It was just the latest offensive in a six-month campaign to elect Brazil’s most storied statue—whose outstretched arms and moonlike glow can be seen from any point in Rio—as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The contest, sponsored by the Zurich-based nonprofit New7Wonders Foundation (new7wonders.com), is the first overhaul of the world’s most prestigious heritage sites since the 2nd century B.C., when Greek sages compiled the original seven wonders. Only one of those ancient landmarks—the Egyptian pyramids—has survived the sands of time. Joining them will be seven new marvels of human design, selected in an international competition from an imposing list that includes the Greek Acropolis, the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall of China, the Mayan Temple of Chichen Itza on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, India’s Taj Mahal and (thanks to the Brazilian media blitzkrieg) the world’s best-known icon of Christ the Redeemer.

The rules of engagement couldn’t be more broadly drawn. Basically, anyone over the age of 6 who can click a computer mouse and tell the difference between one monument and another is eligible to select the top seven of 20 possible landmarks. (The 20, in turn, were whittled down from a starting list of 77—all of them manmade and built before the year 2000—drawn up by an expert panel of architects headed by former UNESCO director-general Federico Mayor Zaragoza.) Other finalists include the stone structures at Petra in Jordan, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Rome’s Coliseum, Machu Picchu and the statues of Easter Island. The voting officially ends on July 6, with the winners to be officially announced the following day—tellingly, 7/7/07.

As imposing as the monuments may be, the real cultural wonder at work may well be modern communication technology. It was the Greek historian and travel writer Herodotus who pioneered the first publicity drive for world wonders, heralding the most breathtaking heritage sites of his day on the written page. The new seven wonders will owe their existence to mobile text messaging and the Internet, tools that have enabled at least 90 million (at last count) people to cast votes. (About 10 million Brazilians had cast votes by early July). This makes the New 7 Wonders drive the largest poll on record, according to John Zogby, who runs the Washington-based polling organization Zogby International. “When Swiss adventurer Bernard Weber thought up this contest in 2001, he paid $700 for a Web site based out of Canada,” said Tia Viering, the New7Wonders Foundation spokeswoman. “He had no idea that this would take off the way it did. But that’s the power of the Internet.”

Mobilizing that many votes takes dedication—and cash. Brazil’s leading corporate sponsors, like Banco Bradesco and TV Globo, have already shelled out “millions” of dollars, say national campaign handlers, in the drive to elect the Christ statue. But the Brazilians are not alone in their monument frenzy. All around the globe nations are engaging in hard-sell marketing, deploying legions of spinmeisters, celebrities (Jennifer Lopez and Shakira), business executives, students, archeologists and even clergy in the effort to get their compatriots to back national treasures. Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan have also joined the fray in their respective countries.

Some societies have raised the bar of civic activism by staging epic theater, like the human daisy chain that embraced the Alhambra, in Granada, Spain, or the thousand-strong troupe of Chinese folkloric dancers that performed atop the Great Wall. “The campaign has taken on a life of its own,” said R. D. Bhatnagar, director of the Mumbai-based India Unites for the Taj. “We have school children carrying banners, film stars, people shaving their heads. This is a matter of pride for every Indian.”

So zealous are the campaigners that some countries are literally outdoing themselves at the polls. Jordan, with a population of 7 million, has already counted some 14 million votes, says Emam Afanah, head of public relations for the national Jordan Tourism Board. Though repeat voting is technically against the rules, contest organizers allow that it’s a no-brainer for anyone with multiple e-mail addresses. “Of course I voted for Christ,” says Agosto, a Brazilian balloter, who declined to give his full name. “I voted for him once in Rio and once in Manaus.”

But the contest organizers seem less concerned about eventual sleights of hand by overzealous campaigners than they are about raising awareness about the world’s unique cultural heritage sites and shaping the imagination of travelers everywhere.

Could the contest backfire by bringing an unmanageable flow of holiday-makers to some countries? Viering argues that it is worth the risk. “Yes, [this campaign] could bring more tourism. But what we are hoping is that it will bring better tourism,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be better if people associated Mexico with Chichen Itza instead of beaches, tequila and a cheap spring break? Countries see this contest as a chance to say, ‘Come here and experience something you cannot experience anywhere else’.”

Getting that message across would be something of a wonder on its own.