Chávez rests his case – Will Venezuela open its doors wider to tourism?

On the 10th of November 2007, at a Ibero-American summit that took place in Santiago de Chile, Hugo Chávez insisted on interrupting the speech by the then Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to make his point (that the former Spanish Prime Minister, José María Aznar, was a “fascist” and “less human than snakes”) and to accuse him of having supported a failed coup d’état aimed at removing Chávez from power.

During the course of the meeting Chávez was enraged by Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero for suggesting that Latin America needed to attract more foreign capital to combat its chronic deepening poverty and by remarking that Chavez’ socialist politics scared investors out of Latin America. Chávez’s attacks became so ¨annoying¨ that even Zapatero, generally opposed to his predecessor’s policies, made a point of defending Aznar, stating that he had been democratically elected and was “a legitimate representative of the Spanish people”.

The organisers switched Chavez´microphone off but he continued talking.

Meanwhile, Don Juan Carlos, King of Spain, watched everything in silence.

And then it happened, no longer able to contain his rage, the Spanish monarch uttered what became a cult slogan, a mobile phone ringtone and a YouTube sensation overnight. He leaned forward and yelled in Spanish: ¿Por qué no te callas? (Why don´t you shut up?)

As you can imagine, that didn´t go down very well and the phrase has spawned countless media articles, jokes, songs, video clips and it become a greeting among Venezuelan expats in Miami and Spain and a slogan for Chávez opponents.

As of yesterday, 5th of March 2013, Hugo Chávez, sadly,  stopped arguing. Having held the position of President of Venezuela for over 14 years, Chávez succumbed at the age of 58 to the cancer that afflicted him for a long time.

Does Venezuela need/want foreign tourism?

What does this new chapter in Venezuelan history mean for the  people of the country that holds the highest murder rates in Latin America?  Can the country provide enough stability to turn its poor reputation around and start attracting tourism to  complement the petro dollars that have been until now the main source of revenue of the country? If so, could it all be done in a manner that respects the pristine environment of the country?

Before passing away, Chavez  appointed Nicolás Maduro as his political successor and replaced senior generals in the army after a military coup against him in 2002. Chavez’s health treatment had lasted for a long time, and this, one would say, has prepared the Venezuelan people mentally for a new era. At this stage, it does not seem as if the opposition intends to seize the political power through violence. Also, the relationship between the United States and Venezuela has improved since U.S. President Barack Obama came to power despite frequent verbal conflicts between the two countries. It is not in the interest of the United States to see Venezuela, one of its main oil suppliers,  fall into great turbulence.
Viviendo en una sobresaturación

Venezuela boasts the longest Caribbean coastline of any country, the world’s tallest waterfall,  snow-capped Andean mountains and Amazon rainforest. But considering the country’s size and natural attractions, tourist numbers are low. In 2009, Venezuela received around 600,000 international visitors compared to more than the two million that landed in neighbouring Colombia (World Bank figures). Most of these visitors visited the country from Europe or North America, but less than half were on holiday, with the majority visiting family, on business or studying.

But efforts are being made to boost visitor numbers. Last year Venezuela and the UN’s World Tourism Organisation joined forces to find effective ways to attract foreign visitors. But that´s proven not to be an easy task. Currency controls used to stop Venezuelans investing abroad mean the official rate of exchange is extremely poor for visitors paying in the country with US dollars. As such, a sandwich and a bottle of water in a cafe in Caracas can end up costing tourists around $25 at the official rate.

Playa Tirano - Isla de Margarita

The efforts continue and promotions come in many forms. For instance, the 3rd South American  Beach Games to be held in Vargas in December this year are designed to attract thousands of visitors and boost the tourist attractions in the region. Some tourists have been particularly attracted by Venezuela’s political scene since President Hugo Chavez took office in 1999. Activist tourism has proven interesting for politically minded visitors like Nancy Kohn and Sue Bergman, two women who were among a dozen Canadian and American tourists on a “reality tour” of Venezuela run by Global Exchange, a US-based organisation.”I’ve been to Cuba five times since 2006 and I really wanted to better understand the connection between the two countries,” said Nancy while on a bus tour of the capital, Caracas. The tour spared travellers from the usual holiday fare of museum visits and beaches and instead offered them the chance to meet Venezuelan activists and community leaders – a reality show portraying the unprecedented social change occurring in Venezuela and the region.

Ecotourism in Venezuela

One thing that Hugo Chávez will probably be remembered for is his ability to learn where others have failed. Overcrowding and mass tourism have endangered many ecosystems throughout the world, particularly in Europe and Asia. So Eco Alianza was created to encourage eco-tourism to develop in the country  and to make a conscious effort to conserve Venezuela’s landscapes and indigenous flora and fauna, creating local jobs while offering tourists a chance to understand native cultures and natural environments. The Angel Eco tour company was a founding member of the alliance; a 5% of the company´s profits are donated to community projects.

Some villages have welcome visitors and embraced tourism, providing guests with the opportunity to stay overnight with a local family or sample traditional cuisine or handicrafts.  Venezuela’s 40 national parks offer great opportunities for bird-watching, nature hikes, botany and wildlife photography. The Canaima National Park,  in Bolivar State,  features  over 6,000 varieties of plant-life — including rare orchids — and hundreds of species of birds and animals. This park is also home to the Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall  and one of Venezuela’s most popular attractions. The ancient Amazon rain forests present many rare species of flora and fauna, as well as more than 20 indigenous groups. Fragile coastal eco-systems are protected marine parks, but visitors are allowed to snorkel and scuba dive.

Where the Dark River Rises by Michael Anderson

Besides the potential to enjoy all of the mentioned gifts from mother nature, environmentally responsible visitors can stay in sustainable accommodation like eco-lodges, campsites and family-run haciendas.  But  what is essential for Ecotourism to function adequately is to be regulated and well-managed. Without certain standards, ecotourism will revert back to greenwashing and stop being  sustainable.

Venezuela is a very privileged country. Not only does it have some of the most beautiful women in the world :), but it also has been given the gift of a stunning natural environment. All of these treasures need to be preserved and carefully exposed to foreign visitors. Let´s just hope that the new generation of Venezuelans does  not succumb to the  greed that has driven endless other tourist development plans around the world, which have cause extreme degradation and overcrowding.

I think Chávez would have like that.

Oasis by Michael Anderson