Venezuela does not typically come to mind when one thinks of a getaway to a tropical paradise. It should. The country is rich with natural beauty, from hundreds of miles of Caribbean coastline dotted with sandy white beaches, to lush rainforests filled with exotic flora and fauna, to snow-capped Andean mountains reaching to 16,000 feet (5,000 meters). On top of all that, it is home to the world's highest waterfall.
It has also cultivated its own distinct and vibrant Latin American culture, born out of the intermingling of the country's indigenous, Spanish and Afro-Caribbean roots. Most of its people live in cities that lie elevated in the temperate zones, with buildings and homes climbing up the slopes of green mountain ranges along its northern coast.
Situated only an hour's flight from Miami and three from New York, Venezuela might seem like a prime destination for many American tourists, but the country as an international destination faces significant challenges: security concerns and the impact of government policies under Socialist President Hugo Chavez are a problem. Meanwhile, neighboring Colombia, which has dealt with decades of civil conflict and drug trafficking, has managed to overcome these challenges and develop a vibrant tourist industry in a similar geography.
'Security On All Fronts Has Worsened'
For one, Venezuela has a pervasive crime problem, which presents any number of security issues for prospective tourists.
It should be noted that the government has not published most crime statistics since 2004, and figures have had to be determined through independent organizations like the Venezuelan Violence Observatory.
Homicides were up 30 percent from around 13,000 in 2010 to over 19,000 in 2011, according to figures from the VVO. Venezuela's population was nearly 30 million in 2011.
Kidnappings increased 29 percent to 1,150 reported in 2011, based on government figures, though as much as 80 percent of kidnappings are estimated to go unreported, according to the U.S. State Department.
"Armed robberies take place throughout Caracas and other cities, including in areas generally presumed safe and frequented by tourists," a 2012 State Department travel warning read.
"Well-armed criminal gangs operate widely, often setting up fake police checkpoints. Only a very small percentage of crimes result in trials and convictions. The VVO estimates that less than 10 percent of homicides result in prosecutions. It attributes this impunity to be one of the major factors for the increase in crime."
Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, an organization that analyzes organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, argues that underdevelopment of Venezuela's national police force, as well as politicization of and corruption within the military, law enforcement and the judiciary have impeded progress on this front.
"Under Chavez, security on all fronts has worsened," said McDermott.
The Socialist Party's domination of the state's security and legal apparatuses make it difficult for nonparty employees to reach higher levels, leaving not only a deficit of talent, but also creating an environment conducive to corruption, where party members can exploit their political connections, McDermott said.
Whether significant efforts to improve nonpartisan, merit-based advancement in the aforementioned sectors can be achieved may depend on the results of the upcoming October elections, though Chavez's challenger, former Governor Henrique Capriles, does not have a strong record on security either.
"[W]hile (Capriles was) serving as governor of Miranda, the state became one of the most violent in the country," wrote InSight Crime researcher Edward Fox in a March article.
There are also concerns that a victory for Capriles could spur leftist militia groups to rise up.
"Should these militant groups decide to challenge a Capriles government, they will not find themselves in short supply of potential recruits," wrote InSight Crime researcher Geoffrey Ramsey in another article this year.
"Chavez has been arming and training as many as 150,000 highly politicized civilian militiamen since 2009. A 2011 law put them under the direct control of the president's office, but the vast majority will doubtlessly refuse to serve under any leader but Chavez."
'The Only Risk Is Wanting To Stay': Colombia's Tourism Model
Venezuela's neighbor to the west, Colombia, a country of equal natural beauty and cultural richness, has faced and continues to face similar security threats from rebel groups and drug traffickers -- often one and the same -- but has managed to successfully develop its tourism industry.
The Colombian government has poured resources into improving security in tourist spots, while actively promoting itself as a tourist destination, initiatives that Venezuela has to undertake.
The U.S. State Department has acknowledged the improvements to security, though it reissued a travel warning for Colombia in February.
"Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Cartagena and Bogotá, but violence by narco-terrorist groups continues to affect some rural areas and large cities," read the statement.
Yet, the numbers tell a different story from Venezuela's.
Homicides have steadily dropped over the years, from over 20,000 in 2004 to just under 15,500 in 2010, a decrease of nearly 23 percent over a seven-year period, according to the most recent data from U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Colombia's population was just under 47 million in 2011.
Kidnappings have also significantly decreased from 1,442 incidents in 2004 to 282 in 2010, according to the UNODC, though the State Department warns that it is persistent in rural areas.
"The incidence of kidnapping in Colombia has diminished significantly from its peak in 2000, and has remained relatively consistent for the past two years," the State Department reported.
"Nevertheless, terrorist groups such as FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and other criminal organizations continue to kidnap and hold civilians for ransom or as political bargaining chips. No one is immune from kidnapping on the basis of occupation, nationality or other factors. Kidnapping in rural areas is of particular concern."
Robbery, however, remains relatively consistent with a variation of drops and spikes from year to year.
Building upon the substantial security gains in Colombia, the country has been able to market itself as a tourist destination.
"Colombia is making a strategic effort to reinvent itself," said McDermott. "The government is conducting an international campaign to turn itself into a tourist destination and with great success."
Last month, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his administration has invested over $55 million to promoting tourism both nationally and abroad and garnered substantial foreign investment since 2010, according to Colombia Reports.
The government agency Proexport, which handles international tourism, foreign investment and nontraditional exports, has created a brand for Colombia through its online tourism portal.
"The only risk is wanting to stay," reads a tagline on the website.
This message implicitly acknowledges concerns about crime and violence in the country, while allaying them with assurances of security and satisfaction. It is a clever maneuver to take the most detrimental factor to tourism and shift it into a marketing strategy. And it seems to be paying off.
Based on the World Bank's most recent tourism figures, Colombia has maintained a steady influx of over 2.1 million visitors a year from 2006 to 2009.
By comparison, Venezuela, which has made little effort to promote itself abroad, had only 771,000 visitors in 2006, which dropped over 20 percent to 615,000 in 2009.
Colombia's model of re-branding itself from a South American country troubled by violent crime to a Latin American paradise could prove useful for Venezuela should it decide that it wants to increase tourism, but its government appears to have an alternate approach.
Venezuela's government tourism agency, Venetur, operates the majority of hotels and runs most of the tourist activities throughout the country.
This directly contrasts with Colombia's tourism model -- and the models of most other countries with highly developed tourism industries -- that have sought foreign investment.
"Venezuela's policy has been one of nationalization, not stimulus of the private sector," said McDermott.
The result has been that Venezuela's tourism infrastructure is vastly underdeveloped. This is apparent in the limited number of accommodations and their ability to connect visitors with tourist sites around the country through safe and secure transportation, as well as the overall lack of promotion, which would all expand with a diversity of private investors.
But this is also, perhaps, exactly the way Venezuela wants it.
With a vibrant tourism industry also comes the concerns of its potential impact. Beyond economics, tourism also has an impact on society.
For a country whose government has branded it as in the midst of a pan-Latin socialist revolution, resisting the incursion of free-market capitalism, the societal impact is of particular concern.
"We're socializing tourism, rather than an elite tourism, we're promoting popular [accessible] tourism, social tourism ... a humane, and very ecological and diverse tourism," said President Chavez in 2008, Venezuelanalysis reported.
This idea of "elite tourism" is essentially an excoriation of a tourism industry dependent on foreign and private sector investment.
"We're slowly constructing tourism for the development of humanity rather than the development of the bank accounts of a few tasteless business owners," wrote Tamara Pearson, an Australian pro-Chavez activist living in Venezuela and writing for Venezuelanalysis.
"It's contextualized tourism aimed at fomenting community organization, encouraging environmental and ecological awareness and appreciation, rescuing local culture and collective history, and promoting solidarity and knowledge exchange between countries and regions."
The basic message is that Venezuela is not interested in selling an image of itself as a playground for tourists, and all that entails, regardless of the profit involved.
While this approach could be considered a noble and dignified refutation of capitalistic enterprise and defense of cultural integrity on principle, it can also be viewed as a social buffer against the influence of other societies, particularly ones that are philosophically opposed to Venezuela.
It would seem that Venezuela would rather not have its beaches or rainforests or mountain enclaves sectioned off by privately owned resorts, staffed by its citizens who would then be subject to the rules and regulations of their employers and not the government.
This would ultimately begin to erode the influence it has over its people, which it has no interest in allowing to happen.
The Venezuelan government has decided that it is better off with a lackluster tourism industry that remains within its control, rather than a vibrant one subject to the interests of the external parties.
In the end, it feels it can afford to forgo this presumably "destabilizing" source of revenue because it is still receiving massive revenues from its oil exports, though it also runs the risk of an economy that is not diversified.
"The big problem for Venezuela is that it has a lot of oil," Bobby Coimbra, a Caracas-based Brazilian advertising executive for the agency Ogilvy, told the BBC. "And that means the country doesn't worry about making other plans."
With oil production stagnating and the increasing volatility of global oil markets, however, Venezuela may find itself grasping for options and staving off unrest while oil revenues drop. And at that point, the government in Caracas would have a lot more serious problems on its hands than the lack of international visitors.
Ryan Villarreal reports on foreign affairs with a focus on Latin America. He also covers human rights and environmental issues worldwide....