Don't worry if you can't make it to Rio de Janeiro's raucous Carnival in February. Tourists will soon have a chance to enjoy the deafening samba drums, near-
naked dancers and bright floats all year round.
In September, Rio plans to open the doors to Samba City, a 93,000m2 complex that will house workshops for 14 of the best Carnival troupes. It will stage parades and shows several times a week, offering visitors a peek at the preparations for the world's best-known party.
"Carnival ends on Ash Wednesday, but everyone coming to Rio wants to see the show," said Rio tourism secretary Rubem Medina. "Samba City will be a giant Carnival dream factory and, we are sure, the city's new tourism icon."
The complex is also expected to breathe new life into the now dilapidated sooty Rio port area around it.
Medina said the municipality-funded US$25 million project, complete with souvenir shops and eateries, should lure between 700,000 and 1 million tourists every year. Foreigners spent some US$450 million in Rio between January and April, 45 percent more than in the same period of last year, according to Medina.
The Carnival troupes, called samba schools, say they cannot wait to move out of the grubby old warehouses where they are currently based and into the new complex.
Tourism is key to Rio's economy and the Samba City initiative is the first major investment to capitalize on the festival since 1984 when the city constructed the Sambadrome, an avenue lined with stands and VIP boxes where the troupes parade.
The Sambadrome is the focal point of Brazil's pre-Lenten festival and the two nights of parades by the top 14 schools in the Sambadrome are televised around the world. The schools previously paraded in the streets.
keen to move
Jorge Luiz Castanheira, vice president of the Independent League of Samba Schools, said the troupes which work all year preparing for the annual parade are thrilled.
"The samba schools are totally vibrating to get into the Samba City. They are flabbergasted by the size of the site. A permanent workshop is an age-old dream come true," he said.
The old warehouses used by samba schools are too small for the lavish floats, some as high as a three-storey house, and for the hundreds of workers who stitch together sequined costumes or mold tones of Styrofoam into giant sculptures of anything from dragons to aircraft.
"The schools can now invest in the infrastructure, in the organization. They will be able to work better, to produce a more beautiful show," said Castanheira. A single group can have more than 4,000 costumed dancers and drummers and up to eight floats.
The new assembly workshops, above which each school will have large halls for seamstresses and administrative offices, have ceilings 12m high, equipped with cranes to move around parts of floats.
"In the old hangars there is no room to mount upper parts of the float so we can only see the whole of it when we are already on the avenue heading for the parade. Now the quality will improve dramatically," said Alvaro Luiz Caetano, president of Mangueira, one of Rio's most famous samba schools.
The schools are fiercely competitive and try to keep their floats a secret until shortly before the parades, but Caetano said there was no chance that rivalry would ease just because the schools would be close together in the Samba City.
"Tourists can come to see, but there are no courtesy visits from rivals allowed," he said.
In fact, rivalry between troupes may even increase, which could encroach further on the original carefree spirit of the Carnival.
Only the premier-league groups can work in the new complex. Each year the lowest-ranking school leaves the top 14 and the champion of the second division takes its place. Schools get marks for costumes, music, dancing and other criteria.
Still, both Medina and representatives of samba schools brushed off concerns that Carnival was becoming too commercial and losing its roots in the poor neighborhoods of Rio.
"The artists who create the show are the same popular artists and artisans from the community, who will simply now have better tools," said Castanheira.
The headquarters of samba schools where musical rehearsals occur will stay where they are, mainly in or near Rio's slums -- the center of the Carnival
The organizers say Samba City won't be only for tourists. "The project is for Rio dwellers as well, we expect them to cram the venue on most days ... The Carnival spirit will be alive there," Medina said.
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