Tío Conejo Chronicles: are Venezuelans really hostile to Foreigners?

Colombia's got nothing on us... (except, y'know, everything.)
Colombia’s got nothing on us… (except, y’know, everything.)

A guest post from Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez 

Last week, the World Economic Forum released its “Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report” for 2013. The study rated 140 countries on various metrics so as to gauge overall national attractiveness for potential investors as well as for tourists themselves.

All the ALBA nations, including Venezuela, had a particularly poor showing in multiple categories, news of which has been making the rounds ever since. Venezuela came in second to last overall as regards “friendliness to tourists,” outdone only by our beloved sister republic of Bolivia. This would make this country purportedly less amiable to visitors than Russia, Iran, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, even France.

The finding left me surprised, and a bit incredulous.

After all, I’ve had many friends visit me from abroad and they’ve always had a blast: the view from 360, weekend trips to Choroni or Morrocoy, the clubs, the rum, the parties. No complaints. Ever.

Of course, on their own, these folks might have had a whole different experience. Venezuela does have a terrible crime problem. And — at least in the capital, where streets are rarely marked and directions are given in terms of “subiendo y bajando” — one should expect a great deal of wandering around confused, further compounding the city’s already considerable dangers. But isn’t that just Caracas?

Then there’s the fact that tourists cannot easily use ATMs given the extra digits we require on passcodes, and wouldn’t want to anyway given our arcane currency controls. Making it mandatory to engage in illegal currency trading to avoid getting ripped off is not much of a welcome mat to put on the country’s doorstep, really.

So ok, I can see how Venezuela is probably a terribly frustrating place for tourists and visitors, should they arrive not knowing people in the country… but isn’t this just a natural byproduct of a lack of tourism infrastructure? And is not that itself just a consequence of our having never actually invested in tourism as an industry in our Dutch-Diseased little part of the world?

Culturally, I think Venezuelans can be very welcoming of foreigners. And on occasion, during my Prince Halesque wilder days, I actually managed to get away with a great deal in Caracas by cynically pretending not to speak Spanish at key times. Playing the “confused and agitated gringo” card.

I’ve skipped some colossal lines and annoying bureaucratic formalities that way, as kind people would roll their eyes and pity my not knowing what the line/requirement was for. Likewise, speaking English outside a nightclub or trendy restaurant is still a surefire way to skip past the velvet rope. On occasions, this trick can even bend the laws of spacetime, allowing one to travel instantaneously from the moment they are stopped at the alcabala, to the time they bribe the cop and can drive away. As the policeman knows the practiced song and dance routine about “taking one to the station” and “unidades tributarias” will be wasted, he/she feels free to cut to the chase – such efficiencies are few in Venezuela. Furthermore, being “foreign” has the added benefit of providing full deniability should some particularly observant police office notice that you’ve passed them some of the counterfeit bills your cousin gave you, and that you’ve been saving in your glove compartment for just such an occasion… You get the idea.

In contrast, North Americans would rarely be so patient, or understanding with a perplexed foreigner. Pretending not to speak English might –at best– get one out of being accosted by some particularly aggressive panhandler, but forget cops and bank lines: you’re on your own.

The fact that I look back on such schemes with a touch of pride, cuts to the heart of what I suspect the real problem is. Perhaps the frustration being picked up by this study, simply stems from the overarching Venezuelan cultural affinity for trickery and chicanery: the “Tío Conejo” mentality that we are all brought up with. Can it be that to Venezuelans, conflating “stranger who trusts me” with “gullible fool I can trick” is at this point just second nature?

If so, one can imagine how this might pose a problem for the tourism industry. Tourism, after all, is highly reliant on services, and services often require trust. If we are really a nation being brought up to trust little ourselves, and to see those who do as “opportunities” can we really expect people to come visit us to explore our land?

When a person is cognizant that every interaction will be a battle of wits, being perceived as “foreign” can be an asset. It leads other to be overconfident, and allows one to reset any negotiation that is not going well by simply pretending to have misunderstood what was said or agreed to earlier on. Yet I suspect few visitors are like to stick around enough to begin appreciating this game for its own sake. Scared off instead by their inability to get anywhere, massively accumulating expenses, and constant indignation at receiving the “descuento musiú.”