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Obstacles to travelers

The government hopes that tourism will bring in additional foreign exchange revenue, but conditions in the country have led to a 55% drop on vacation packages to Venezuela. By Oswaldo J. Avendaño

High levels of insecurity have a detrimental impact on the countrys attractiveness as a tourist destination (H. Matheus)

Humberto Matheus

15 de abril de 2016 23:39 PM

Actualizado el 18 de abril de 2016 10:12 AM

PARA COMPARTIR

Obstacles to travelers

Venezuela is the country in the South American region with the largest coastline in the Caribbean. But this considerable potential for tourism has not been developed.

According to the Venezuelan Association of Wholesalers, Tour Operators and Representation Companies (AVEMAREP), small changes in tourism policy and services may convert this sector into a valuable source of foreign exchange earnings.

President Nicolás Maduro announced on February 1 this year the cranking up of the so-called "13 productive engines" as part of the Bolivarian Economic Agenda to restart the productive apparatus. One such engine will seek to bring in additional foreign exchange revenue by unleashing the potential for tourism and related recreational activities in the Venezuelan territory. However, food shortages, power outages, water supply cuts, the exchange control regime, and the high levels of insecurity are likely to arise as obstacles to achieving this goal.

Tourism planning

The current minister for tourism, Marleny Contreras, has been in office for almost 11 months now. During the first quarter of the year 2016, Contreras held a series of round table discussions in all states of the country to attract public and private sector involvement in bringing forward proposals to develop the tourism sector. According to Contreras, tourism has the potential to change the economic model. "I’m convinced that the time for tourism has come. Tourism is the new oil for Venezuela," she said at a meeting in Paraguaná, Falcon state (north-west).

At one such round table discussion with tourism private sector representatives, held on January 25, Contreras said that national tourism projects will be financed with domestic capital. "We have several proposals and we want to encourage domestic investment. There are many Venezuelans who can contribute with their resources," she said.

Contreras also noted that there were international hotel chains interested in investing in the country, but she did not name names. "I cannot name them because we are currently evaluating the investment plan and what the counterpart [sic] is; that is, what they are offering and what we can offer. They are willing to invest their resources and we to offer our potential, without surrendering an inch of the nation's territory,” she said.

Rafael Guerra, Vice President of the Tourism Council (CONSETURISMO), said that the tourism sector can provide the country with additional and substantial revenue, but only if public policies on tourism are carefully planned. He adds that the experience of tourism service providers is an important factor in developing strategies that are effective and sustainable over time.

"Unlike other tourism ministers, during Marleny Contreras’ tenure there has not been a smooth communication between the representatives of tourism service providers and the government on the issue of public policy making," said Guerra, who believes that the results of the round table discussions held by the Ministry of Tourism "do not take into account" the contributions from the private sector.

Guerra takes the view that the Ministry of Tourism should continuously report on the projects being developed in the sector, allowing tourist service providers the opportunity to assist in improving them.

Country Brand

The National Executive launched in December 2015 the Venezuela country brand, one of the ten campaigns conducted by the government in less than as many years.  Marleny Contreras explained that the goal of the Ministry is to position the nation as a “multi-destination country.” She said they are planning to develop adventure and extreme sports tourism because she believes the country is "prepared for that."

"What we want today is to join efforts in the tourism sector to encourage domestic and international investment. Tourism brings in additional foreign exchange revenue.  Besides being a generator of jobs, tourism contributes to happiness and wellbeing,” she said.

Rafael Guerra says that policies to promote inbound tourism should rely on a previous study to determine the most attractive image for different international niches.  It is important in tourism fairs to strengthen relationships with airlines, wholesalers, travel agencies and cruise ships because they move between 50% and 65% of international tourism.

The Global Social Well-Being Index ranked Venezuela 131st in  lack of safety and security in 2015.This, coupled with the homicide rate at year-end in 2015 (which stood at 90 per 100,000 inhabitants), has a detrimental impact on the country's external image and attractiveness as a tourist destination. According to Guerra, it is not enough to say that Venezuela is a safe country; it really has to be safe.

"It is not that there's a global campaign of lies about safety and security in Venezuela; every week we see how someone is robbed, kidnapped or killed. People will not go to a country that does not have the minimum conditions of security. People will not go to a place where their safety and that of their family is at risk," Guerra says.

Great potential for beach tourism

Venezuela is the country of the South American region with the longest coastline in the Caribbean. However, this has not been taken fully advantage of so far. Rafael Guerra believes that cruise ships offer an excellent opportunity to earn foreign exchange because of the large number of tourists they bring in in a short space of time. But deepwater port infrastructures must be developed first.

“Venezuela’s warm waters and strategic location have not been taken fully advantage of. Take the islands east of the country. They offer very attractive conditions. But conditions alone are not enough. Policies are needed to develop ports," says Guerra.

The El Guamache port in Margarita Island, where cruise ships dock, is a case in point. It can only dock one ship at any one time, as it lacks multiple docks to support numerous ships at one time. A long-term investment that will ensure increased currency earnings from the arrival of cruise ships on the shores of the country would be required. Guerra recommends that, coupled with this, the tourist ground transportation fleet be revamped to make it more attractive and safer.

The poor state of public utilities and services

Energy saving became a mandatory government policy for almost all sectors. In the tourist sector, hotels with loads greater than 100 Kva are forced to generate their own electricity for nine hours every day to help stabilize the national power grid system.

To Rafael Guerra the main problem complying with this resolution is that the purchase of generating equipment and spare parts is made in dollars, which are currently in very short supply resulting from the fall in oil prices. Furthermore, increased frequency of use reduces the life of these devices and most hotel chains only use generators in cases of emergency.

According to Julio Arnaldes, President of the Venezuelan Association of Wholesalers, Tour Operators and Representation Companies (AVEMAREP), the biggest challenge to providing quality service is the lack of water.

"If you tell international tour operators that you have restrictions on water supply, they wouldn’t understand. This is a very serious problem. And you are left with no other choice than to tell them about the water shortage. We all know about the state of public utilities and services. No one wants to come here and suffer from the lack of water or power,” Arnaldes says.

Arnaldes adds that the private sector hotel infrastructure has benefited from loans granted by the Ministry of Tourism. However, the quality of facilities such as airports or transport systems is far from satisfactory. "In Venezuela we have more than six or seven international airports that do not have air conditioning; people cannot stay inside the airport and have to queue out in the street. Until there is an improvement in the infrastructure we will only bring in the number of tourists that we can handle," he says.

Rafael Guerra notes that other than elevators, kitchen appliances and air conditioners, the tourism industry requires bed linen, towels, food and beverages. “Many tour operators tell us these items are too expensive and not always widely available.  It might be difficult for an international tourist to grasp that food is scarce. The service provider must buy these items at any price and that raises operating costs," says Guerra.

According to figures from AVEMAREP, the selling of tour packages to Venezuela has fallen by 55%. Industry representatives take the view that the sector is likely to improve, but not sooner than 2017, and only if appropriate steps are taken. They also note that small changes in tourism policy and services may convert this sector into a valuable source of foreign exchange earnings.

"It is very difficult for measures taken in April 2016 to yield results sometime this year. Tourist flows are planned well in advance and seldom leave any room for improvisation,” says Guerra.

Twitter@os0790

Translated by Sancho Araujo

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