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
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
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
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
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
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
He said the political climate -- namely, the election of Chavez, who had
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
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.