Leudo Gónzalez is one of the most knowledgeable tourism professionals in Venezuela, and a great advocate of the country's tourism industry.
Academically trained at the University of Miami, with a degree in Business Administration and Management, specialising in Finance, he is president of the Superior Council of Tourism - CONSETURIMO, has also been director of the Venezuelan Association of 5 Star Hotels - AVECINTEL, in addition to developing his professional facet as general manager of Cumberland Hotels.
Dear Mr. Gonzalez, in short, what does Venezuela offer as a tourist destination that differentiates it from other Caribbean countries and its continental neighbours?
An extraordinary and privileged geographical location in the north of South America, which allows us to have and offer the world superlative landscapes in our Caribbean, Andean and Amazonian facades. A historical past of worldwide transcendence and, most importantly, the warmth and fraternity of our people.
After a pandemic like the one you have experienced in your country and in the rest of Latin America, what is the current situation of the national tourism industry?
The sector is in a phase of restarting activities, which involves the improvement of the various tourist services in the destinations that make up our vast national tourist geography. At this early stage, the influx of visitors is mostly made up of nationals, while international connectivity is recovering.
Do you think that Venezuela, as an oil-producing country rich in natural resources, takes national tourism into consideration?
In the recent past, oil monoproduction has been a brake on the development of other sectors of the national economy. However, the current reality, as a result of the decline in national oil activity, encourages the government and the general public to look for viable productive alternatives in other sectors, such as tourism. We have even observed that national public opinion is favourably disposed towards the development of the national tourism sector. All these expectations must be accompanied by joint actions and synergies between the public and private sectors, in order to adapt the regulatory framework and public policies to ensure its viability.
Let's talk about tourism education. What do you think is the current situation in Venezuela when many of the great professors and researchers are no longer with us?
Certainly, the national education sector has suffered heavily from the consequences of what we call "The Venezuelan Diaspora", which is that large flow of national migrants dispersed around the world (the UN estimates it at 6.8 million, representing just over 20% of the national population). However, in the educational sphere of Venezuelan tourism, we have noticed that the possible drop in school enrolment has been offset by the interest that the tourism sector has awakened in the population, which is why many young people see it as their future. Another favourable aspect is the use of distance learning (online), which increases the offer of tourism studies at national and international level. What does concern us is the content of the designs and contents of the study programmes, which we think should be readapted to the current reality and favour the use of new information technologies, as well as the adaptability of the training programmes to sustainable development and the fulfilment of the SDGs of our activity. Hence the efforts of our business associations to improve the knowledge and quality of the personnel working in the sector.
After difficult years of health security, inflation, etc., experienced in the country, what does it offer and what are the tourist expectations of a country that has everything, such as Venezuela?
The Venezuelan situation is particularly different. In addition to these reasons, since 2013 we have been experiencing a decline in our standard of living as a result of poor management of the national situation, which was reflected in the deterioration of basic services, increased insecurity, isolation and border closures, international sanctions, hyperinflation and reduction of sources of productive activity. However, the expectations of tourism in Venezuela imply committing ourselves even more to the necessary rescue, conservation and responsible use of the wide and superlative diversity of our socio-cultural, historical and natural heritage, because this is the basis for the development of tourism in our country. We are a megadiverse country with more than 50 % of its space protected, where National Parks and Natural Monuments represent 26 % of the national territory.
From your position as hotel director, how do you foresee the evolution of the hotel industry in Venezuela?
Most of the country's tourist accommodation establishments are characterised by medium to low receptive capacity, mainly concentrated in the coastal and island areas and the country's capital (73 %). However, and despite the adversities faced (country situation + pandemic), the tourist accommodation component has been reincorporating, maintaining, recovering and improving its operational and service offer. Likewise, despite the lack of financing for the construction of new facilities, we have observed in some state capitals and in some tourist destinations, the construction of new establishments, particularly hotels and inns, a fact that demonstrates interest in investing in the sector.
Venezuela has 17 Zones of Tourist Interest, of which 10 are favourable for the development of projects related to the hotel industry. Likewise, 5 Special Economic Zones were recently created, in which tourism is one of the sectors considered to be favoured with the fiscal benefits that new investments will receive. These investments are currently supported by private initiatives, hence the need to ensure a legal and institutional framework that facilitates the financing and attraction of investors for the entire tourism sector in any of the country's tourist destinations.
What about tourism professionals in Venezuela, after many left for other countries, do you think there is a replacement of young people to fill the vacant posts?
Despite the paralysis of activities during the pandemic and the increase in the exodus of Venezuelans abroad, some tourism companies have found it necessary to train new personnel, either on their own initiative or through agreements with public and private tourism training institutions. However, it should be noted that the enthusiasm for the reactivation of tourism has also had a positive impact on the country's young population, particularly those in tourist areas, who are attracted by this productive sector.
Some news reports speak of large foreign investments in the tourism industry, what do you think about this?
Certainly, at the national level there are some foreign investments in the purchase and refurbishment of a few hotel facilities, as well as new projects. The attraction of foreign investment will be greater to the extent that the projects of the new Special Economic Zones and the Zones of Tourist Interest, which have Management Plans and Regulations for Use, are activated. However, it is necessary to offer institutional and fiscal incentives, legal security and better public services in the selected zones.
Do national entrepreneurs have the capacity to continue investing and improving the national tourism offer?
There is a Law on Tourism Investment and Credit for the Tourism Sector, which was a great support for the growth of the national tourism industry in previous years. This Law is not being activated at the present time, as the banks (public and private) do not have the capacity to lend. Current national investments in the tourism sector are made according to the financial capacities of the entrepreneurs, which determine the size of the investments and their tourism facilities.
Is the Venezuelan tourism industry making efforts to provide creative and innovative solutions to the country's offer?
The private tourism sector is making serious efforts to promote the development of tourism in Venezuela. The opening of new destinations and innovations in the products and services to be offered is constant. However, official support for the sector requires greater intensity or backing, particularly with regard to the establishment of preferential rates for public services and the necessary reductions in the current fiscal voracity.
What are the basic pillars of Venezuela's tourism policy?
Tourism policy is characterised by a centralist model with little or no participation from the private sector, particularly in everything related to the Plan for the Homeland 2019-2025, which is where the guidelines and objectives to be followed are set. Lately, we have seen that the National Executive has initiated changes in its solitary actions, opening spaces for participation that contribute to the reconstruction of the national economy, and tourism has been one of those sectors, where we are beginning to formulate proposals that will allow us to generate a series of public policies that will leverage tourism development. The government is talking about the Tourism Engine, where the state is not only the government, but also the main operator of hotels, recreational spaces, air transport, etc., etc. We believe that the state should disassociate itself from being a major operator of tourism services, leaving these functions to the private sector and taking charge of the promotion and development of policies that ensure the competitiveness of tourism in the international market.
How do you understand the phrase: "digitalisation of the Venezuelan tourism industry"?
That the massive use of communication technologies and digital transformation in the development of Venezuelan tourism is being promoted. This is partially true, since more and more tourism service providers are using not only social networks, but also information technologies to be efficient with their clients, as well as alternative technologies in terms of alternative energy generation and water production.
In this sense, do you think that the national authorities are working on this issue?
Yes, it is mentioned in the official discourse, but they are not consistent in their actions and support for the establishment of greater use. This type of change requires incentives to massively increase its use.
As president of Venezuela's main tourism business institution, how would you define relations with the national authorities?
Relations with national and regional authorities have improved and are cordial. We wish to establish a common agenda, which supports and consolidates actions that tend to favour the sustainable growth of the sector and the establishment of a series of public policies that fortify its development.
In your opinion, what are the weaknesses of Venezuela's tourism offer and what are CONSETURISMO and the Ministry of Tourism doing to solve them?
The greatest weakness of the Venezuelan tourism offer is the isolation to which the country has been subjected and the lack of international air connectivity. The Ministry has focused on seeking alliances with distant countries (Russia, India, the Middle East, Turkey). The diaspora itself has become a significant source of demand, located in closer countries with a tradition of friendship with Venezuela.
Gastronomy, culture, sun and beach tourism, and other types of tourism, what do you think are the pillars of the country's tourism offer?
Venezuela's wide and superlative diversity of landscapes, expressed in all its socio-cultural, historical and natural heritage.
As a great connoisseur of tourism in the country, what tourism milestones do you foresee for the coming months in Venezuela that will help promote the country as a tourist destination?
The opening and accessibility from the main sending countries in the region and Europe.
According to our president, Mr. Antonio Santos, a great friend of yours, you and the members of the CONSETURISMO steering committee form one of the most consolidated and prepared groups in Latin America, since few companies and institutions like the one you represent could have continued with the tourism activity after years as complicated as those experienced. What do you think are the keys to the resilience of Venezuelan tourism?
One of the characteristics that has stood out the most among Venezuelan tourism entrepreneurs is their stubbornness to remain in a sector as satisfying as tourism, and in which we have high hopes of turning it into a pillar of national development.
In the Tourism and Society Think Tank, we have almost 100 professionals from the Venezuelan tourism industry and some of them ask us why not to organise a "TSTT Meeting" in Venezuela, as has been done in Peru, Mexico, etc., to promote the country among the almost 100,000 registered professionals from all over the world. How do you think this idea could be developed, and would CONSETURISMO lead it?
Of course we would love to take the lead. We would feel very honoured to host such an event and it would also give us the opportunity to promote the benefits and attractions of our country to such a worldwide audience.
Finally, in a hundred words, why come to Venezuela?
Because Venezuela is one of the most beautiful countries on the planet, and I am not saying this as a Venezuelan, but rather it is pointed out by prestigious publications worldwide.
Venezuela has a privileged geographical location in the north of South America, bordered by the Caribbean Sea. In fact, Venezuela has the largest extension of Caribbean coastline in the region and therefore, we have the most spectacular beaches on the continent. In addition, Venezuela is one of the most megadiverse countries on the planet with an endless number of species of flora and fauna and a large part of our territory is protected by special laws. Venezuela also has a great variety of tourist destinations ranging from our paradisiacal beaches to our unique region on the planet such as La Gran Sabana, where the highest waterfall in the world is located, the Kerepacupai Vena, better known as Angel Falls, our Andean region where it ends or begins, depending on where you look at it from, The Andes Mountains, with their immense mountains and eternal snow, our plains with their spectacular landscapes rich in native flora and fauna, to our Orinoco Delta, where our majestic Orinoco River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, ready to be discovered by tourists from all over the world. But Venezuela is much more than landscapes, flora and fauna. We offer the world our culture, traditions, folklore, gastronomy, historical and patrimonial heritage of which we feel extremely proud and perhaps the most important and special thing, our people, a melting pot of indigenous, black and Latin races, who have distinguished us for being a very happy and helpful people, ready to give their souls if necessary because here we are all brothers, even if we do not know each other the treatment is always familiar.
For this and many other reasons, coming to live the "Venezuela" experience has to be on the wish list of those who love to travel and get to know special places on the planet.
Thank you and best regards from the professionals and friends of the Tourism and Society Think Tank.
The authors are responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this document and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of Tourism and Society Think Tank and do not commit the Organization, and should not be attributed to TSTT or its members.