Thursday, November 7, 2013

FITVen2013 - Talking Tourism in Venezuela

After writing a tour guide and book about living in Venezuela it was good to spend time talking tourism at Venezuela's International Tourism Fair, FITVen 2013. I even got interviewed a few times by the local media. 

Venezuela is so blessed with natural treasures that it's hard to understand sometimes why more people aren't visiting the country. Where else can you find the world's highest waterfall, Angel Falls, which cascades down from a heart-shaped mountain in a jungle setting that is so lush and wild and untouched by man that it looks like it comes straight out of the movie Avatar? Where else can you sit on the porch of a stilt house surrounded by water and watch the night sky lit up by fiery arcs of electric lightning like you can in Catatumbo? 

With more Caribbean coast than any other country, Venezuela has more than its fair share of beautiful, unspoiled beaches, islands, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and tropical rainforest.  

The seasonally flooded Llanos, or great plains, are so teeming with anacondas, capybaras, caymans and piranhas that getting up close to the wildlife is as easy as opening the door of your lodge and stepping outside. For birdwatchers' the ranches of Los LLanos are the best kind of paradise. 

Sure there are issues that affect tourism, some of them political, some social, some economic, and others that come down to how much marketing you do in what is a very competitive battle for the tourist dollar, but the raw material, the natural attractions, are all in place.  

And so when I was invited by the Venezuelan Tourism MInistry (MinTur) to attend FITVEN 2013, Venezuela's International Tourism Fair, I jumped at the chance to visit Venezuela again and to talk tourism with people in the industry. 

This year the even was held from 24-27 October in the Andean city of Merida, at the Cinco Aguilas Blancas Complex.

Merida is a great place to start any tour of Venezuela and an extreme sports and hiking destination that is worth a few days at least to explore.

It was good to hear Tourism Minister Andres Izarra began his inaugural speech  by emphasizing the importance of tourism to the Venezuelan economy.

After oil and the agro-industry, tourism comes in third place, he said, pledging greater resources for tourism promotion and a boost to tour operators and hotels with a scheme offering access to cheaper credit lines.

Minister Izarra was open enough with the international journalists to acknowledge that crime and insecurity and distortions to the economy created by the black market for dollars were problems that have to be overcome for Venezuela to become more attractive to foreign tourists.

The minister also acknowledged that in recent years investment in tourism had been low, but said that a new plan is being developed to increase promotion and boost tourist numbers. This Plan Maestro (Master Plan), includes the development of Margarita as a central tourist hub, with more incoming flights and greater links with mainland destinations like Angel Falls, Merida and Barinas.

Other plans include the long-awaited termination in mid-2014 of the fully revamped cablecar in Merida, known locally as the teleferico. 

World-renowned for being the longest and highest cablecar system  in the world, the teleferico was always a key tourism magnet for the Andean city and Minister Izarra said that tourism had fallen from a million annual visitors to about 500,000 since it ceased to function in 2008.

The new system is being built by the Austrian firm Doppelmayr and is nearly 80% completed. When it is finished it will be able to transport 500,000 tourists a year to Pico Espejo (4,765 metres, 15,633 ft) at the foot of Venezuela's highest mountain Pico Bolivar (4,978 metres, 16,332 ft).

Luckily, as part of the trip to FitVen2013 I was allowed to travel up to the cablecar station at Pico Espejo with the other invited journalists, and it was amazing to ride with the workers in their open-sided cars and see them engaged in the backbreaking work of dismantling the old concrete infrastructure at such a high altitude.

More than one of the workers had the telltale stains on the teeth of the strong local chewing tobacco, called chimo, that has been used since ancient times in the Venezuelan Andes to keep out the cold and stave off hunger and exhaustion.

It was reassuring to see that the cable system is all in place and operational, leaving the construction of the concrete stations as the last major infrastructure task facing the workers.

Another plan announced by the minister is the completion of the cablecar system on the Caribbean side of the Avila mountain in Caracas, which would allow passengers to travel from Caracas up to the Humboldt Hotel (at 2,140 metres above sea level) and then down to the beaches of Macuto. The Caracas-Macuto journey time - on a day with no lines to wait in - is estimated at 45 minutes. 

The cablecar is expected to be operational by 2015, and in the meantime the government is planning to reopen key hotels, such as the former Melia Caribe, and Macuto Sheraton. 

This is the 8th edition of Venezuela's annual FitVen tourism fair, and it attracted large crowds to the three pavilions. One showcased tourism in Venezuela and the different regions and states were represented; another focused on International Destinations with stands from Germany, Ecuador, Spain, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Colombia, France, Japan and Russia; a third was for tour operators to hold business meetings and there was another area where food and handicrafts from Venezuela were on sale to visitors. 

It was certainly busy, final figures on the last day showed some 58,000 people passed through the doors of the Cinco Aguilas Blancas Complex. 

Having traveled so extensively in Venezuela to many places that my Venezuelan friends at the time considered to be no more than "monte and culebra" (scrubland and snakes), it was refreshing to see so many young Venezuelans eager to learn more about the tourism alternatives in their own country.

For more information about visit the official FitVen2013 website here:

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