March 15, 2000
Floods took a heavy toll on Venezuelan tourism

                   CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- The floods and mudslides that devastated
                   Venezuela's Caribbean coast last December have taken a heavy toll on the
                   tourism industry as well, hurting one of President Hugo Chavez's top initiatives
                   for reviving the economy.

                   Tourism in Venezuela, both domestic and international, has declined by 60
                   percent so far this year, according to the National Federation of Venezuelan

                   Vargas state used to be the favorite beach destination for Caracas' 6 million
                   residents because of its proximity. But the avalanches of mud, water and
                   boulders that came crashing down the mountain separating the capital from
                   the Caribbean Sea rendered scores of hotels, resorts, restaurants and beach
                   clubs inoperable.

                   Beaches have been turned into cemeteries, and the roads connecting towns
                   and villages have been badly damaged. Where palm trees, open-air
                   restaurants and beach kiosks once stood, there are buildings buried up to four
                   floors high in mud, overturned cars and wooden crosses in the sand that serve
                   as memorials to the dead.

                   The tourism decline began even before December's disaster, largely because
                   of Venezuela's painful 7 percent economic contraction last year. The flooding
                   and mudslides, which killed between 5,000 and 30,000 people, made the
                   situation worse.

                   Venezuela working to improve image

                   Most of the country's tourist destinations were not affected by the natural
                   disaster, however, and industry executives are trying to spread the word that
                   Venezuela remains a viable choice for international travelers.

                   Teodoro Rivas, a 56-year-old tourist guide at the pristine Tacarigua Lagoon
                   120 miles northeast of Caracas, said the drop in visitors has forced him to
                   take up fishing to support his family.

                    Nicola Carusella, owner of a small hotel in Chichiriviche, 160 miles northwest
                    of Caracas, said tourist activity in the area -- traditionally one of Venezuela's
                    most popular  destinations because of its palm-filled, white-sand keys --
                    "has been almost nil" this year.

                   Though Chichiriviche was spared the devastation of the floods, Carusella said
                   reduced tourism is decimating the livelihood of the town's 5,000 inhabitants,
                   who have always relied on tourism.

                   The Hotel federation's president, Hugo Arriojas, said hotel occupation is
                   down 35 percent so far this year.

                   Federico Garcia, president of the Association of Venezuelan Tourism
                   Chambers, said the "bad image" of the flooding hurt a tourism industry that
                   already was reeling from Venezuela's perceived political instability and
                   soaring crime.

                   He said the political climate -- namely, the election of Chavez, who had led a
                   failed coup years ago -- "has put tourism operators on a state of alert."

                   Chavez has repeatedly said he hopes to make tourism one of the country's
                   main engines of economic growth, overcoming the downturn of recent
                   months. To counteract the tourism decline, the government announced a plan
                   last month to repair roads, clean up the environment and install signs at key
                   tourist destinations.

                   Deputy Tourism Minister Maria Eugenia Loriente says the idea is to improve
                   infrastructure in Venezuela's most desirable regions: the 1,700 miles of
                   coastline that boast more than 150 tourist beaches, Amazon jungles ideal for
                   adventure travel and vast wildlife preserves in the country's western plains.

                   The government has promised a major campaign to promote Venezuelan
                   tourism abroad, as well as tax and other financial incentives for tourism

                   Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.