Thursday, September 6, 2012
It has the longest Caribbean coastline of any country and the world's tallest waterfall, not to mention snow-capped Andean mountains and Amazon rainforest. Tourist paradise? Not Venezuela.
Considering the country's size and natural attractions, tourist numbers are low.
In 2009, Venezuela received just over 600,000 international visitors, according to World Bank figures, compared to more than two million in neighbouring Colombia.
The majority came from Europe or North America, but less than half were on holiday. Venezuela's Institute for National Statistics shows many were visiting family, on business or studying.
Venezuela's annual tourism fair gets under way on Thursday and this year the country has teamed up with the UN's World Tourism Organisation to make a special push to improve visitor numbers.
We want to "boost tourism as a means of development and cultural interaction," a government statement said.
The fair brings together airlines, hotel chains, tour operators and banks looking to invest in tourism.
But while tourism overall is still underdeveloped in Venezuela, one niche has done well in recent years.
Some foreign tourists have been attracted by Venezuela's political scene since President Hugo Chavez took office in 1999.
"I've been to Cuba five times since 2006 and I really wanted to better understand the connection between the two countries," said Nancy Kohn, from Boston, Massachusetts, who was on a bus tour of the capital, Caracas.
Sitting next to Ms Kohn was Sue Bergman who works in a clinic in Berkeley, California.
"The reason I chose to come here was because I've been a political activist pretty much my entire life," said Ms Bergman.
The two women were among a dozen Canadian and American tourists on a "reality tour" of Venezuela run by Global Exchange, a US-based organisation.
The tour dispensed with the usual holiday fare of museum visits and beaches and instead offered visitors the chance to meet Venezuelan activists and community leaders.
"See for yourself the unprecedented social change that is occurring at this historic time in Venezuela and the region," the tour literature said.
'Revolutionaries eat people'
While Mr Chavez and his policies are an attraction for some, other aspects of his "Bolivarian revolution" make life difficult for tourists.
Currency controls to stop Venezuelans investing abroad mean the official rate of exchange is poor for foreigners arriving with US dollars.
A sandwich and a bottle of water in a cafe in Caracas cost around $25 at the official rate.
There has also been criticism of the government's tourism strategy.
"The ministry has changed slogans, image, concepts, markets constantly. There've been a series of changes that basically have just generated distortion and confusion in the international market," said Julio Arnaldes, president of the country's tourism council, Conseturismo.
The government blames the international media for its inability to attract more visitors.
"There's an international network that says Venezuela is an insecure country, unstable, dangerous and that the revolution and President Chavez keep coming and that revolutionaries eat people," Tourism Minister Alejandro Fleming said earlier this year.
Venezuela, which has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, has certainly struggled with its reputation for violence.
But other countries have proved that a bad reputation can be overcome and even turned into an advantage.
Colombia, which suffered international headlines about guerrilla conflict and cocaine trafficking, did just that when it came up with its latest tourism campaign.
"The only risk is wanting to stay," said the tagline on the advertisements, making an oblique reference to the worries that tourists might have about visiting a country where foreigners had been kidnapped in the past.
This daring way to sell Colombia became a story in itself, garnering plenty of extra publicity overseas for its tourism attractions.
For Venezuela, heavily dependent on revenues from oil, the main problem could be the lack of incentives to invest in the tourism sector, according to Brazilian advertising executive Bobby Coimbra.
"Since I arrived 20 years ago, I've never seen any government bothered about tourism and no government has ever had a plan to effectively develop the sector and sell Venezuela as a tourist destination," said Mr Coimbra, who heads the Caracas office of advertising agency Ogilvy Mather.
"The big problem for Venezuela is that it has a lot of oil, and that means the country doesn't worry about making other plans."
So while the push is on to attract more visitors, Venezuela's beaches, mountains and Amazon jungle seem set to remain a well-kept secret for some time to come.