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Venezuela’s crisis remakes its tourism industry

The beach, Venezuelan style

(Editor's Note: Graphic Content) Every weekend, Venezuela's beaches fill up with people who come to drink, eat, laugh and, of course, dance — defying the country's out-of-control crime.
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(Editor's Note: Graphic Content) Every weekend, Venezuela's beaches fill up with people who come to drink, eat, laugh and, of course, dance — defying the country's out-of-control crime.

Come what may, Venezuelans still have fun.

On any beach on any weekend, you can still find families drinking, eating, playing games and, of course, dancing. Like everyone in this troubled country, beachgoers worry about crime. They complain about the prices of fish caught in the bay and cooked a few feet from their tables, but they mostly smile and laugh.

The beer is cold. The music is loud, and the people louder. More is more in Venezuela.

Just as many people go to the beach now as ever did, said Erick Mata, an exuberant, fair-skinned 40-something from Puerto La Cruz, a major beach destination on Venezuela’s north coast. The difference is that people from countries such as the United States, Germany and the Netherlands don’t show up as often as they used to, he said. Americans, particularly, have become scarcer since early 2015, when the Venezuelan government started requiring them to have visas to enter the country, Mata said.

His cousin, Domingo Mata, said foreigners usually stuck to private beaches on islands just off the coast, which offered a safer, laid-back alternative to the popular beaches’ party atmosphere.

Domestic shift

Venezuela’s economy and security, long in decline, slid into crisis over the past year.

Food and manufactured goods are scarce. Inflation, the highest in the world, is out of control. The International Monetary Fund predicted last week that prices would rise 720 percent this year. Murder, robbery and kidnappings are common. The U.S. State Department has regularly issued warnings to American citizens about the country’s security.

Foreign tourists, particularly Americans, have disappeared throughout Venezuela.

The economic crisis is one reason voters handed the government’s party a stinging defeat in December parliamentary elections, giving the opposition 112 of 167 seats in the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative branch. The new lawmakers, who took power Jan. 5, are now locked in battle with the socialist government led by President Nicolás Maduro.

Foreign tourists have disappeared throughout Venezuela – even in the mountains in the western part of the country, where the air is cool and everything seems peaceful.

Ramona Zerpa, who sells trinkets, pottery and other tourist-friendly items at a store in the mountain town of Mucuchies, said sales had plummeted over the last year.

“Before, maybe 10 years ago, a lot of Americans came,” Zerpa said. “And you’d sell a lot. In the good season, you’d work from 4 in the morning to 10 at night. Now, you work from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon.”

In Caracas, the capital, tourism businesses have shifted their attention from foreigners to what is known here as “full day” tours – one-day trips, mostly for people who live in or near Caracas, to places such as Choroni, a tourist destination tucked into a national park about 40 miles due west of Caracas that was once a hive for foreigners and their money.

Before, you could buy groceries and you had something left over. Now, you buy groceries, buy clothes and you don’t have anything left to go out.

Ronald Artigas, nightclub worker

These trips are creating a growing market for domestic tourism, said Marjorie Leal, who works for a company that sells full day trips. That market also is benefiting from Venezuelans’ inability to get permission or enough American dollars to travel to the United States, Leal said. With foreign travel out, they take trips in their own country.

Afraid of the dark

Venezuelans’ famous love of fun is also on display at bars, restaurants and nightclubs all over the country.

But while beach life feels the same as it did a decade ago, nightlife has undergone deep changes, few of them good for business.

In the old days, people between the ages of 18 and maybe 40 would start their weekend nights around 11 p.m. at a bar. They’d have a few drinks there, and about 2 a.m., they’d head to a nightclub, where they’d dance and drink until the club closed around 5 a.m. They might stop at a restaurant for an arepa or buy a hamburger from a street vendor on their way home.

Inflation is so bad that cash has become cumbersome. Your pockets bulge if you carry enough cash for a night of drinks, food and a taxi ride.

Now people go out for a few drinks and go home early, or go to a party at a walled house in a gated neighborhood watched by an armed guard.

“We all know someone who’s had their life taken, who’s been robbed. Friend, stranger, young, old,” said Yulis Espinoza, a young, outgoing woman who works as operations manager at TGI Fridays in Puerto Ordaz, a once-wealthy planned city in eastern Venezuela. “The last two or three years, Venezuelans prefer to party, hang out in somebody’s house.”

Safety bubble

Just like the customers, the people who run restaurants, bars and clubs are adapting to the new Venezuela.

They find any edge they can to keep money flowing. TGI Fridays cranks its air-conditioning, giving customers immediate relief from Puerto Ordaz’s sweltering temperatures.

Jose Luis Valls tries to reach a variety of markets at the restaurants, lounges and nightclubs he owns in Puerto Ordaz. Valls, in his mid-40s with salt-and-pepper hair and a slightly raspy voice, sounds defiant, almost snide, on the subject of Venezuela’s crisis.

Yes, business is hard these days, he said. But it can be done.

Security is the first priority. Valls said he’d chosen the venue for T-Rraza 52, an expensive, stylish nightclub with a large open-air patio, based on that one ingredient.

T-Rraza is on the fourth floor of a large office building next to a major street in Puerto Ordaz. Getting in requires a walk past several guards, who check everyone for weapons. Valls owns a restaurant in the same building that specializes in American-style burgers.

Adults love the restaurant, he said. But they’re staying away from the late-night scene at T-Rraza. So Valls adjusted his marketing. Instead of catering to people between 25 and 35, he said, he aims to bring in 18- to 25-year-olds. Deejays play more modern music and fewer classics.

“An adult has more to lose,” Valls said. “They have more fear that they’ll be attacked. The kids, no. Kids, they just care about going out to party.”

Cost of drinking

Doing business also has required adjustments, literally. Inflation is so bad that cash has become too cumbersome for many purchases. For example, buying a bottle of rum in T-Rraza would take 50 of Venezuela’s largest-denomination bills. Your pockets bulge if you carry enough cash for a night of drinks, food and a taxi ride. It makes it hard to dance. ATMs routinely run out of bills.

 

Ronald Artigas, who works at a nightclub named La Asuncion in central Caracas, said inflation also cut into what people were willing to spend, regardless of whether they were paying cash or using cards. Instead of five beers, they’ll drink two, he said. Instead of ordering several bottles of rum, a group will request one.

“Before, you could buy groceries and you had something left over. You’d buy clothes, and you had something left to go out and have fun,” Artigas said. “Now you buy groceries, buy clothes and you don’t have anything left to go out.”

At T-Rraza, Valls said, customers buy rum instead of Scotch, once Venezuela’s preferred drink. That cuts into his profits.

The more things change

Venezuela’s shortages also have changed business practices. “Before, I didn’t have to leave the office,” said Valls, discussing how he makes sure he has the food and beverages he needs to serve his customers. “All the suppliers came to the office. I didn’t have buyers. Now, I have two or three buyers in the street all day long, looking for merchandise.”

Espinoza told the same story. A few years ago, she said, suppliers competed for TGI Friday’s business. Now it’s the other way around. Sometimes there are no ribs or other popular dishes to be found, she said.

“We try to still be a cheerful place,” Espinoza said. “We’re not going to welcome people saying, ‘Look, we don’t have this, this or this.’ Instead, we’ll offer upfront, ‘Hey, I’ve got some delicious hamburgers.’ ”

But some things haven’t changed, such as the search for that sweet spot where you’re offering a product people want at a price they are willing to pay.

“The country’s changing. We have to change, too,” Valls said. “I say, if things are this bad and I’m still producing, when things get better, well. . . . ”

Berg reports for the Idaho Statesman.

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