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Rio de Janeiro getting a makeover

Bike stations throughout Rio de Janeiro allow people to rent bikes online or via text message.

Rio de Janeiro has long been a tropical flower with thorns. Set in one the world’s most stunning natural locations, the pulsing metropolis has suffered from persistent crime and weak infrastructure. Most recently, three downtown buildings collapsed on Jan. 25, leaving at least 17 people dead.

This tragic setback aside, security and infrastructure are generally improving and travelers are taking notice.

Riotur, the city’s tourism office, says the city expects to get 3 million more visitors this summer (January through March) than over the same period last year. The Brazilian Association of Hotels in Rio is predicting 90 percent hotel occupancy through the end of the season, the best in years.

A combination of events has boosted Rio's standing. A booming economy has vaulted millions of people into the middle class. Huge discoveries of offshore oil has encouraged optimism that economic advances will not evaporate like false starts of the past. And the impending global spotlight of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics have forced the city to finally make much needed investments in public safety and infrastructure.

Known as “The Marvelous City,” Rio is starting to live up to its potential.

One year has passed since the police crackdown on drug traffickers that controlled many of the city’s favelas, those impoverished hillside communities that house millions. The city has made a concerted effort to root out organized crime from the communities, bringing peace and incorporating them into wider society. The police has embedded small teams in the neighborhoods that are tasked with crime prevention and delivering social services never before offered in those areas.

Crime has plummeted. São Paulo-based American ex-pat, Marjan Harbison, who recently took her family to Rio for the first time, said, "I was impressed by how safe I felt, even compared to São Paulo," the largest city in Brazil.

There are so many fewer car thefts in Rio this year that the once crushing cost of car insurance has fallen in kind. And in this upbeat environment, infrastructural improvements are arriving, slowly but surely.

“City hall is working hard on the infrastructure," says Rubem Machado, a spokesperson for Rio’s Commission of Sport and Recreation. "We’re getting new roads and the revitalization of the Port [the future site of the Olympic Village] is already under way. The main stage for the World Cup will be Maracanã soccer stadium and its remodel is in progress too.”

However, even Machado admits “the modernization of the (two) airports is still really behind schedule.”

But other changes in the shorter terms are already making the city friendlier for visitors. New subway (Metró) stations at Ipanema beach and an upcoming new line to Barra da Tijuca beach are improving ease of transport and accessibility. Paris-style bike stations are popping up throughout the city that allow people to rent bikes online or via text message. And the most famous beaches, Ipanema and Copacabana, are getting new public bathrooms and workout stations.

Harbison, the American ex-pat, was pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness and order of the city. “Rio may have had a reputation in the past, but it’s clear that things are improving,” she said.

Antonio Scorza / AFP/Getty Images

The 2016 Summer Olympics will be held in Rio de Janeiro, marking the first time a South American destination will host the Games. Take a visual tour of the Brazilian city's beautiful beaches, landscapes and people.

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