BOASTING the highest waterfall in the world, nearly deserted Caribbean islands and dense jungles with ocean views, Venezuela has everything a tourist could want – except the tourists are not coming.
In a country where explorer Christopher Columbus once believed he had found heaven on earth, officials are struggling to draw travellers, with only 700,000 visitors each year, in part due to Venezuela’s somewhat tarnished image.
After neglecting the tourism sector for years, in favour of the lucrative oil industry – Venezuela has the world’s largest proven reserves – the government in Caracas is now working hard to attract visitors.
However, the country suffers from outdated infrastructure – hotels, highways and domestic flights are all lacking – and wary foreigners who choose different destinations after seeing Venezuela’s high crime rates.
“The main enemy of the development of tourism in Venezuela was oil,” Carlos Vogeler, regional Americas director for the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), told AFP.
“When a country has such a major revenue generator, it has a tendency to ignore others.”
Venezuela’s new tourism minister, Andres Izarra, says he intends to put his country on the map as a vacation hotspot.
“Our goal is to reach one million foreign tourists from 2014,” he said. While infrastructure may be lacking, attractions surely are not. From the biodiversity of the Orinoco Delta to the richness of the Amazon jungle, from Andean peaks to the hundreds of kilometres of idyllic beaches, Venezuela seemingly has it all.
Angel Falls is the tallest waterfall in the world, the pristine coral reefs of the Los Roques archipelago attract divers, and others are keen to explore the “tepuis” – towering mountains in the southeast.
The successes of neighbouring countries provide some hope: according to UNWTO statistics, Colombia welcomed 2.1 million visitors last year, 4.5 million people flocked to the Dominican Republic and its famous resorts and Brazil had 5.6 million visitors. In 2011, Cuba opened its doors to 2.6 million tourists.
Several months ago, the ministry launched a high-profile campaign to draw tourists. New air routes were opened, airports were renovated and the government renewed languishing contacts with industry players.