Political unrest, insecurity and shortages have destroyed Venezuela’s once booming tourist industry. Employers and operators blame Chavez’s government for the situation in a country that has been defined as a “hostile, dangerous and chaotic destination.”
Jorge Espinoza a young Chilean tourist, arrived in Caracas with some friends to have a great time in Venezuela. His final destination was the paradisaic island of Margarita, where he would enjoy calm and beautiful beaches, Caribbean rum and the company of the beautiful local girls. Jorge ignored the employees warnings and left the safety of the hotel for a walk through downtown Caracas. On Bolivar Avenue he was nabbed by a group of individuals who, after beating him, stole his camera, a fair amount of money and his passport.
This young man’s misfortune is one of many that foreigners experience in Venezuela, once a tourist paradise visited in his heyday by 800.000 tourists a year, according to industry sources.
Today, however, the picture is quite the opposite. Several Venezuelan sources agree that foreign tourism has fallen by at least 50% due to security issues, political tensions, shortages, lack of foreign money exchange and regular electrical failures.
“Crime has wreaked havoc in this country, and it has occurred during Hugo Chavez’s government”, states a tourism employee. When Chavez took power there were 12 murders per 100.000 inhabitants per year. Today, according to studies by various agencies, the figure is up to a whopping 138 killings per 100 thousand inhabitants,” complains Nelson Maldonado, Fedecamaras Director, the Venezuelan private business chamber.
On Friday 20, a report by the National Statistics Institute (INE) reported that in 2009 there were 19.133 murders within Venezuela.
Moleiro Alonso, a member of “Ciudadanos por la Unidad” -opposition group that researches Venezuelan day to day trends- adds that the country has become a hostile, dangerous and chaotic destination. “There is no guarantee of safety anywhere,” he states.
Valentina Quintero, Venezuelan journalist who has published seven tourist guides, states that in her many travels around the country she has noticed that insecurity is an increasingly serious problem.
“Now it’s no longer just Caracas that is dangerous, now even it’s spilled over into the rest of the states. For example, Zulia, which borders with Colombia, has become a sanctuary for guerrillas, drug traffickers and common criminals. You can now become a crime victim in Merida, Isla Margarita and the Amazon jungle, which were once peaceful places,” she says.
The growing distrust of police, corruption and lawlessness are, according to Moleiro, the cause of social conflict in Venezuela, which has in turn led to lawlessness and an outright disrespect for the law and therefore even more deaths.
However, the Chavez government has accused the opposition of orchestrating a new plan for its destabilization, using the issue of personal insecurity as their battle cry.
Silvia Arteaga, a former executive of the National Tourism Institute, argues that many reports published by the press are not based on reality. “Caracas is as dangerous and unsafe as many cities in Latin America and the World,” she says. “Places like Merida, Isla Margarita and Puerto la Cruz are completely safe for tourists, and the proof is that they are still very popular destinations.”
The troubled political climate in the country, which has sharpened as parliamentary elections approach now in September, has also contributed to further alienate travelers.
“Tourists when choosing a vacation destination they do so because they want peace and quiet. Venezuela only offers an atmosphere of tension, confrontation and aggressive language from especially the highest authority and that stimulates violence,” says William Bracho, chairman of the Venezuelan National Tourism Council.
Furthermore, the economic recession has hit hard in Venezuela and this also favors the absence of tourism.
According to Maldonado, the archaic socialist policies adopted by Chavez, plus growing internal debt and declining oil production have led to the collapse of the productive apparatus, there are now shortages of sugar, rice, meat and other commodities. “Do you think anyone would dream of traveling to a place where they are in risk, will suffer hunger and scarcity?” he asks.
This year has been particularly difficult for the electricity sector in Venezuela.
A prolonged drought and lack of investment in the Guri Dam, located in the southeastern state of Bolivar, which feeds the Guri hydroelectric, and Macagua Caruachi, which generate 73% of the country’s electricity, has caused numerous power outages. Experts say this has also scared tourists away.
Money exchange issues
According to William Bracho, president of the National Tourism Council, the issue of government foreign money exchange controls have also hurts Venezuelan tourism.
“Tourist that arrive to the country are expected to exchange their money at the official rate, which is 4.30 bolivares per dollar. But the black market rate is twice this, so a new level of insecurity appears as banks and hotels only use the official rate. Tourist are then subject to the added risk of entering the black market money exchange system which is completely unregulated.”
Backpackers and politics
Journalist Valentina Quintero has noted the rising despair of the hotel and inn owners due to the lack of tourists. Taxes on the business makes it difficult to survive, and many are in bankruptcy. “The only tourists that we receive are backpackers,” they say.
There are also infrastructure issues. “In Merida, for example, the airport is closed for commercial flights and cable car (which is one of the main tourist attraction) is closed too.”
Businessman Nelson Maldonado states that now there’s “political tourism”, Bolivarian congresses and sports events, all invited and paid by the Chavez government.
William Bracho states that there are two perspectives regarding tourism in Venezuela. “The private businesses want to improve things and turn it into an opportunity for investors, and the Chavez government viewpoint that believes it should be something the State takes care of, and this has led to hotel and complex expropriations and now through the State owned Venetur it has become the main tourist operator in Venezuela.”