Beautiful Venezuela: Tourism with a Social Conscience

Rather than Disneyland tourism, rather than humiliating “third word” selling itself to the  rest tourism, in stunning Venezuela, tourism is taking a new turn towards community and state run exploration of history, culture, and biodiversity.


One could argue that there are two types of tourism, and unfortunately the first is much more common than the second. It involves tourists passing through a country or place for a short amount of time in a kind of quick violation of it, taking what they want from it and feeling little need to give much back beyond the money spent. Such tourists stay in hotels beyond the means or dreams of locals, eat supposed local food that the actual locals could never afford, and hop in a taxi or go on a tour to visit the “main sites” – the famous bridge, the giant blue watermelon, the place where some ridiculous star had breakfast, the confusing abstract ball of twisted metal statue in front of some regal building with doors forty times the size of actual human beings – pose in front of them for a tonne of repetitive photos they stick up on Facebook. Most will buy some tacky mass produced “souvenir”, possibly something flogged off as “indigenous art”; art they don’t understand, sold by people who don’t make it but do make money from it, while the indigenous people and artists flounder invisibly in the background in a poverty of power. Then the tourists go home without having learnt very much about the country beyond how cheap its coffee is, but having done a good job at snobbing their way around, condescendingly tipping the locals and expecting the country to bow down to their needs just because they come from a different country, most likely a “first world” one.

The second kind of tourism involves a lot more local dignity, but unfortunately it’s not very common. A few individuals practice it, but it’s rarely organised or planned on a larger scale. Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution is getting there though. We’re slowly constructing tourism for the development of humanity rather than the development of the bank accounts of a few tasteless business owners. Its contextualised tourism aimed at fomenting community organisation, encouraging environmental and ecological awareness and appreciation, rescuing local culture and collective history, and promoting solidarity and knowledge exchange between countries and regions.

“We’re socialising tourism, rather than an elite tourism, we’re promoting popular [accessible to the majority] tourism, social tourism… a humane, and very ecological and diverse tourism,” said President Hugo Chavez, in 2008 at the inauguration of Venezuela’s annual International Tourism Fair (FITVEN).

Venezuela, with its Amazon forest, gold-white Caribbean beaches and islands, unique lightening phenomenon, sand dunes, tallest waterfall in the world, Andean snow capped mountains, rare frailejon plants, toucans, hummingbirds, and chiguires, its determined mass revolution, its salsa and hip hop, beautiful murals everywhere, and a population of mostly warm, cheerful, and outgoing people – has a large tourism potential.

It also has the longest and highest teleferico (mountain cable car system) in the world. So I talked to Jose Gregorio Martinez, president of Ventel – the state company that runs the teleferico here in Merida, as well as another one in Caracas  – about how those dizzying cable cars almost touching the tip of the 4978m high Bolivar Peak- can be a factor in social change.

“This huge project is a lever of social development, that’s the main point of it: to transform reality and be an agent of inclusion and grassroots power. It’s not just a traditional public work where the important thing is the company, no, it’s about awareness raising and articulation between all the different factors involved, the workers, and the communities. It’s also going to put Venezuela at the vanguard of mountain architecture,” he told me from his office at the base of Merida’s teleferico.

Slow start and with huge tourist infrastructure problems, the Venezuelan government is now redefining tourism

The Venezuelan government has been a little slow to comprehend the importance of tourism here, not just as a possible alternative income to petroleum, but also as a means for increasing cultural and awareness levels of Venezuelans, as an activity that is part of every person’s right to rest and recreation (as stipulated by the 1999 constitution), but also as a question of sovereignty and equality- where wealthy Venezuelans and private foreign companies often control access to beaches, national parks and other recreation, either directly, or by charging high transport, accommodation, and tour prices.

However slow or late, the government is now spearheading a campaign to make Venezuela for everyone and its natural beauty something to be appreciated and understood, rather than exploited and destroyed for profit.

In 2005 the government established the tourism ministry, which then founded Venezuela’s tourism agency, Venetur, which organises travel packages and runs the chain of nationalised hotels. It works with Venezuela’s state airline, Conviasa, created in 2004.

Then, after passing the Organic Tourism Law in 2008, the ministry and the government came up with the Strategic National Tourist Plan 2009-2013. The plan analysed tourism at a world level, then the situation in Venezuela, and discusses social and community tourism, training, and improving the quality of tourism and its promotion here. It also recognised a number of weaknesses.

Lack of planning for tourist destinations, lack of basic services and infrastructure to support tourism, inadequate use of technology, such as the internet, for promoting tourism, little importance given to cultural traditions, lack of a tourist culture in terms of receiving tourists, and high airport taxes and flight costs to the country were some of the weaknesses it identified.  Venezuela also isn’t identified as a tourist destination globally, is given a bad image by international private media, and is more expensive than many other Latin American countries.

Further, in 2008, tourism made up just 3.59% of the economy, an increase of only 0.37 percentage points compared to 1998. Outward bound tourism was 2.3 times greater than inward bound – unusual for a “developing” country, and the former has grown by 132% over the last ten years, while inward bound tourism has hardly grown at all. This reflects economic growth and greater disposable income of Venezuelans, but Venezuela is still not seen as a tourist destination by foreigners. According to Bank of Venezuela and INE statistics, this meant that, in 2008, tourism saw more money going out of the country than coming in, for a loss of US$ 1.1 thousand million.

The tourism law states that tourism should become an “instrument for a new horizon of values where the collective is the axis of touristic management” and conceives of tourism as something that adds substance to people and places, values the environment, and very much related to identity and expression of belonging. Tourism should “rehabilitate our spaces and re-value our history, as well as our material and non-material patrimony” and it should be an “instrument for social inclusion and an opportunity for education”.

The law aims to change the conception of tourism as “an industry, where the national executive, through the tourism ministry… has only functioned as an entity that receives projects from a minority sector which has enough resources to carry them out, excluding the vast majority from touristic development. The ministry should encourage the formation of social networks in the communities for presenting tourist projects that improve the quality of life of our population”.

Reclaiming tourism from the rich: nationalisations, public investment, and worker participation.

“The teleferico was constructed under the Jimenez dictatorship, and when the dictatorship fell it still hadn’t been inaugurated. The punto-fijo governments that followed wanted to dismantle it, but the communities protested and it was decided to finish it, plus it turned out to be more expensive to get rid of it than finish it. It turned into a tool of exclusion, only the wealthiest people could afford it. So there’s a social debt because a lot of people here in Merida haven’t had a chance to use it,” said Martinez.

“The governments didn’t bother to invest in it, it was wearing out and in 1991 there was an accident, and over a period of twenty years the teleferico was closed for 11 years 11 months for lack of investment and repairs. Following the line of the IMF, in 1994 and 1995 the government started to privatise it, something the Chavez government reversed when it was elected,” he explained.

In 2008 the current government decided to suspend the teleferico service, and began studies to rebuild it with better structures, more towers, larger and faster cabins, larger, more attractive stations with lifts for people with handicaps, and repairs and modernisation, and in 2010 began the construction, with an investment of US$ 318 million. It should be finished in 2013, “normally it would take seven years but we’re doing it in three”.

“In the rest of the world they are firing people, but here the government is investing money in public works for quality tourism,” Martinez said. “The new teleferico will transport more people (320 per hour compared to 160 previously) and that will have an impact on the local economy.”

Unlike with most private companies, working conditions are safe and dignified. Many workers were chosen by their communities, and through an agreement with Austria, workers are receiving training in teleferico maintenance, some of them even travelling to Austria and Switzerland to study. This is significant, because normally “developing” countries pay for experts to come from other countries, but the Venezuelan government has prioritised training locals, in order to obtain knowledge sovereignty.

Working conditions are difficult. Apart from the rain, snow, hail, and 40 km/ hour wind at higher altitudes, workers also often work on very steep slopes, suspended from cables, and using explosives.

“It’s an engineering and architectural challenge,” Martinez said. “But it’s important to guarantee the safety of the workers, and in 1.5 years of work we haven’t had a single accident.”

Over 400 people are working on the project, with 240 directly on the teleferico itself. They work a total of 20 hours / day in three different shifts, and Ventel has constructed a large, three story building for the workers, Aguada Station. At 3,452m altitude, it is roughly half way between Merida city and the mountain peak, so workers don’t have to make the 1 hour journey every day. The building accommodates all 240 workers, includes a well equipped kitchen and dining room, heated bed rooms, showers, a recreation room, and a health centre. After construction of the teleferico is complete, the area will become a traditional arts market, with galleries and a museum.

Teleferico workers are organised in a socialist council of workers, and depending on their specialities, they help coordinate the institution’s social work with communities, construction strategies, work place safety, as well as a plan for “moral stimulation” (as Martinez called it); their plan of “class consciousness formation” which includes talks, reading circles, and video forums.

The government has also nationalised eight hotels. While these hotels are often used for Mission Milagro eye patients (free of course), for movement and political conferences, and for children or others benefiting from the government’s free vacation plans, generally their prices are well out of reach for most Venezuelans.

Then, in September last year, Chavez announced the expropriation of the company Conferry, following its bad record. Conferry had a monopoly on ferry transport between the Venezuelan mainland and the very popular Margarita Island. Taking advantage of that, it would oversell seats, seeing many passengers sleeping or travelling on the boat floors, would usually leave 2 to 8 hours late, would overcharge for a basic meal -50Bs or up to double the normal price, and its actual passenger fares were also very high. Many individuals and groups had already called for its expropriation, describing its “kilometre long queues” (Miguel Angel Maregatti, Aporrea) and the “abuse” of the company.

Since the nationalisation the government has purchased eight buses to take passengers from the Margarita dock to places around the island.  It has also been renovating, fixing, and improving the boats and port infrastructure, and says it is now paying the company’s 800 workers “a fair wage”, as well as providing them with further training courses. The state management of Conferry created a fund, FundaConferry, to comply with its legal obligation of supporting community and social initiatives in the region. In December, Rossana Gonzalez, of the temporary administration committee of Conferry, said boats were now operating “strictly according to schedule”.

A month after expropriating Conferry, Chavez also announced that illegal houses on the Venezuelan archipelago Los Roques would be expropriated and converted into low-cost hotels for poorer Venezuelans. The islands were known for being a kind of playground for Venezuela’s rich elite and for international tourists, despite being declared a protected area in 1972.

 “The upper-class bourgeoisie privatised all of that [Los Roques] and that’s what we are going to expropriate,” Chavez said at the time, adding that yachts expropriated from fugitive bankers would also be used for sight-seeing tours in the area, and a fishing centre would be built.

Children of the barrio staying in hotels, people with disabilities reaching mountain tops: making tourism accessible

It’s shameful that, globally, and especially in the so called less developed countries, locals are often the last ones to be able to take a few days off and travel and appreciate their own country.

As purchasing power has steadily increased since 1998, the number of Venezuelan residents going away for their holidays has drastically increased, with the government now making regular announcements during holiday periods about the hundreds of beaches available in order to avoid overcrowding. The government also organises a school vacation plan, where “recreationers” aged 17 to 25, after receiving “pedagogical training” (as it’s called) in themes such as environment and recreation strategies, planning and methodology, culture and identity, sports and integral health, sexual education, and the rights of children and teenagers, take school children on free guided community visits, walks in national parks, and organise other sporting and recreational activities with them. Some children even get to go on trips to the Roques Archipelago or Canaima Park (where the world’s tallest waterfall is), all for free, of course.

Each year millions of children get involved in these plans through their communal councils, and registering in response to information provided on community noticeboards, but unfortunately sometimes bureaucracy interferes, with children of workers in institutions related to the plan getting in first.

Likewise, Venetur has organised certain packages, where, for example, workers can put aside 50bs for a year towards a trip to Cuba. Most of Venetur’s packages however, while cheaper than private companies, are still out of reach for many Venezuelans, with a 3 day, 2 night Canaima package costing Bs2,975 (US$ 691 at the official exchange rate) and 3 days, 2 night Carribean pack costing 1,610Bs (US$ 374).

The new design of the teleferico guarantees access to people with physical disabilities, including elevators in the different stations. Also, Martinez said that when it opens, there will be various entry rates so that everyone can benefit from it; a standard rate – one that doesn’t seek a profit but that helps guarantee the service, as well as a social or subsidised rate, and a free one as well. To be entitled to lower rates, people will get recommendations from their communal councils, or show pensioner ID, proof of disability, and so on.

Increasing historical and ecological awareness with tourism run by organised communities

As my own communal council develops a tourism project to restore what happens to be the first column erected to Bolivar in the world, I’ve become aware of how involving organised communities in tourism can heighten their sense of local history and communal identity, teaching  us to value the area. And that sense of value is something we hope to pass on when we begin the project, giving tours of the area as well as down the side of the slope- previously an indigenous path. We hope to create a small museum with handicrafts for sale as well. The project’s finances will be run communally, and should generate some local employment. It’s the opposite of the tourism model where souvenir sellers fight and haggle over each tourist and over each tip.

These sorts of projects are sanctioned by the new tourism law, which, in chapter 9 defines tourism as a community activity and says state policies should be “oriented towards encouraging the collective participation of communities in the control of tourist activity and in the appropriate management of natural, patrimonial, and cultural resources”.

Likewise, public works projects are legally obliged to involve and financially and technically help nearby communities with whatever projects those communities deem important in what Chavez has referred to as the “circle and dot” method – projects bringing about social transformation that “radiates” out from the work site.

The teleferico is helping us with our restoration-tourism project. One of their workers came to one of our regular Wednesday night meetings and told us, “Ventel is at the service of the communal council, not the other way around,” then, after explaining some more, took out a notepad and pencil and listened to what we had to say and what we hoped to do. He encouraged us to call community assemblies, and offered us engineers and lawyers who can help us write up the project.

The rural mountain town of Los Nevados, 2,700 m above sea level, and difficult to reach on the curvy dirt road that leads to it, has both benefited from and helped the teleferico project.

“They have 100 donkeys, and the community has been using the donkeys to transport some supplies for us, it’s a form of income for them, and although what they contribute in terms of weight isn’t much, what’s important to us is their involvement,” Martinez said.

The 2000 inhabitants of Los Nevados, mostly farmers, explained to the teleferico that they had no electricity service, and heavy and regular rain was causing land slides, often leaving them cut off from the world. The teleferico gave them a tractor (Caterpillar D6), which is now communal property, and can be used to clear roads, as well as a truck so they can bring gas cylinders, mercal food, and other needs to their town. The community organised an energy committee, received workshops on the importance and meaning of electricity, and Ventel installed 37 solar panels, so the community now has electricity access.

The teleferico also allocated Los Nevados funding to renovate and improve their schools, but the community itself decided it wanted to allocate some of that funding towards teacher training, as some of their teachers weren’t qualified and they wanted to improve teaching quality.

The community of Barinatas, located at the base of the teleferico, and a general tourist-hostel hub with a beautiful circular plaza, has also benefited from and worked with the teleferico, with the community receiving social auditing workshops, setting up a communal contracting commission to be able to hire the services of public and private companies, and the approval of a rejuvenation plan for the area. The plan not only includes improvement of plaza furnishings, building a children’s park, enhancing the boulevard and so on, but also a transition from informal economy to popular economy, with more dignified stalls for the sixty or so handicraft sellers. The stalls themselves will be communal property, and the community will meet with workers to decide on fair prices, operating hours and other norms.

Finally, in the suburb of Pueblito, below the teleferico, the Ventel has helped with school and drain repairs, renovations to the most vulnerable houses (houses with roof leaks, asbestos, etc) and the acquiring of a plot of land for a communal building, which will include a library (already furnished), a free childcare centre, a small children’s park, and a plaza.

In August this year, communal councils, United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) members, and others will inspect the work being done by the teleferico, talk about their experience with working with the institution, and basically audit the project.

Further, the teleferico system, once finished, will continue working with communities and will promote ecological and environmental awareness. “The idea isn’t just to go up and down the mountain, but to get out at the different stations and walk around, explore, and appreciate biological diversity… It will be a better chance to get to know the national park and to use it rationally,” he said.

Teleferico workers have walked over and mapped over 23 km of paths within the area, including studying the different ecosystems and biological life in each zone. Once the teleferico is finished, visitors will be able to enjoy a range of walks and activities, all designed to be environmentally sustainable, including walks, galleries, and displays to deepen understanding of the original inhabitants of the Venezuelan Andes; an agricultural crafts market, a room with information about and promotion of the network of rural community tourism, a module for bird information and research, other walking paths to learn about ecosystems or to the houses of historical figures, and more sport orientated enjoyment such as GPS treasure hunts for children, mountain climbing and exploration, and kayaking.

US government and private media demonise Venezuela, put off tourists

Most people who visit Venezuela are surprised by the difference between the reality and the mental image they had of it before coming. The US embassy website describes Venezuela as having a “highly polarised and volatile” political climate, where “violent crime is a serious problem and the capital city of Caracas has been cited as having one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world. Kidnappings, assaults, and robberies occur throughout the country; no areas are safe from the high levels of crime.”

Apparently, “Venezuela’s political leadership maintains a fiery Anti-American discourse”. Such notions are repeated by private media around the world: the image of violent, chaotic, undemocratic and repressive Venezuela. While crime levels are high in some places, the rest of course is nonsense (to put it mildy) and the US government’s lying and fear mongering is unacceptable. No doubt it is part of its general demonising of the Bolivarian revolution, as well as being aimed at putting US residents off from seeing an alternative way of doing things to the disaster in their own country, from seeing a country where even they, as foreigners, can receive free health care and participate in countless free cultural events and activities. Of course, such imagery has been one of the factors that causes many tourists choose “easier” destinations.

On the other hand, tourism minister Alejandro Flemming was visiting China in April for an International Tourism Fair, where he found out that president Chavez is one of the main things that interests the people of China about Venezuela. It also seems the government’s work to create more international and bilateral alliances and taking steps towards promoting south-south tourism has paid off somewhat, with the first quarter of this year bringing a record number of foreign tourists at 260,000.

“Merida’s teleferico transcends tourism, it’s about social, economic, and political life,” said Chavez in 2010. Indeed, good tourism goes beyond just exploring our beautiful planet and our culture, to constructing decent and dignified human relations among people within a certain region and between people of different regions.