Friday, October 29, 1999

Vanity tourism

I received an e-mail saying: “Take this one! Attached is one article published by which states that without a doubt, Venezuelans are by a long shot the vainest people in the world.” The index reveals that 65% of Venezuelan women and 47% of Venezuelan men say that they “think about what they look like all the time.” In Germany, for contrast, virtually no one confesses to this habit.

From the tone of the e-mail, I suppose that the sender considered the high ranking achieved by Venezuela in this index as being unfavorable, and I also suppose that he would like me to share some degree of guilt. Well, I DON’T! Intuitively, I am pleased to be part of a country in which my compatriots are worried about their appearance instead of rubbing shoulders with those ranked among those who “never think about how they look.” The fact that our society holds dear to the heart a feeling of vanity over and above levels in other countries certainly differentiates us from the rest and perhaps we should analyze this fact within the context of comparative advantages.

The dedication of persons like Osmel Sousa to the Miss Venezuela beauty contest has elevated our country to the apex of world perception of the beauty of Venezuelan women. By using the word “perception,” I do not intend to question the objective beauty of our women (God forbid, I have four of them at home!). I wish to make a point of the importance of the general perception per se. This, by the way, renders even the less pretty Venezuelans beautiful.

Any country culturally geared toward taking care of physical appearance for centuries, that has managed to develop methods and formulas that have been time-tested and proven to the world by live TV transmissions of Miss World, Miss Universe, and similar mega events, has in its hands a tool to attract tourism that other countries would give one arm and half the other to have.

And so I promptly pushed the “reply” icon on my computer and sent off the following message:
“Thanks for having sent me the Vanity Index. I think there must be certain mistakes in the Index since I believe that the figures for Venezuela are too low. In Venezuela, I would say that 100% of the population worries about how they look.”

“While we talk about appearances, you should see the results we have achieved with a treatment supervised by the stylist school of Caracas which includes massages in the turbulent waters of the Caroní river and scrubbing with powerful and mystic Orinoco algae, while listening to the sensual rhythm of the beating of the herons’ wings and drinking a skin reconstituent malt-based beverage.

And all this under the indiscrete tropical moon, for only US $1,680 per day!

Extracted from “Vanity and the nation’s economy” published in The Daily Journal, Caracas, October 29, 1999

Friday, June 25, 1999

A true fountain of inspiration

I recently learned of the demolition of the famous Hotel Fuenti, located on the beautiful coast of Amalfi in Italy. This structure had become a symbol of what seems to be known as environmental "abusivismo” in Italy. At least this is what comes out of the automatic translator I use when navigating Italian web sites. I am sure that this case is fascinating to those who are interested in administrative law or in the study of Italian society. To begin with, this case has been around for the last thirty years.

The demolition of 34,000 square meters of reinforced concrete structure is no small matter anywhere. Exactly how these measures are approved and taken in order to effectively defend the environmental rights of a society or an individual without resulting in legal "abusivismo” is a challenge to one’s imagination.

I am sure that most of us, without going into much more detail, are absolutely sure that whatever the legal regulations the promoters of the Fuenti violated, there are thousands of worse violations that will never suffer this drastic fate.

On the other hand, most of us will probably not shed too many tears over what may be a total injustice that the Fuenti’s owners are being subjected to. One explanation of the above may be what one could call the Fuenti’s high Visual Contamination Index (VCI).

In order to understand the VCI, let us imagine that we can assign points to the ugliness of any structure, ten points for the ugliest to 1 point for the least ugly. Likewise, we could assign points for the relevance or beauty of its location, from one point for the most insignificant to ten points for the most beautiful and relevant. By multiplying both rankings, we can obtain the VCI. In the Fuenti case, if we assign an eight for ugliness and multiply this by an eight for the beauty and relevance of its location, we obtain a total score of 64. This apparently is enough to send the structure to the gallows.

Does this seem easy and fair? Not necessarily. Imagine trying to get two Italians to come to an agreement about the assignation of points for beauty and relevance!

I sincerely hope that the case of the Hotel Fuenti will serve as an inspiration so that we can begin to confront the serious problems of visual contamination that occur in Venezuela, specially on the Island of Margarita.

Playa El Angel, Playa Guacuco, Playa Anywhere. In all of these we can observe how half-finished structures, like a herd of dinosaur skeletons, provide eyesores to all those who care to pass by. Is it possible that these structures insolently consider that simply because they have suffered an accident, financial or otherwise during the initial construction period, they have the right to contaminate our island. Just as an airplane is required to take on sufficient fuel to get it to its next destination, any construction project should be required to have enough resources to get it to completion.

When you study some of the laws that govern this matter, for example the Urbanization Law, you can find plenty of articles that allow, for one reason or another, authorities to paralyze work on any construction project. Surprisingly, there is no mention whatsoever that refers to the obligation of a project’s promoters to actually finish what they started. Evidently, since the laws are drafted by politicians who are not exactly known for their ability to finish what they started, the word “surprisingly” is probably overdone.

Although I consider the road to the demolition of existing structures to be a dangerous one if based simply on visual contamination, I do believe it is possible to develop a good set of rules to handle half finished projects. Obviously, any law drafted to regulate this matter must guarantee affected parties the right to develop alternatives within a specified period of time (years, not decades!).

We must also analyze those projects that, due to simple lack of use or care are severely deteriorated. We are all aware that fashion once considered that holes in blue jeans were “chic”. Likewise, any amount of building materials has been used to create a rustic look to buildings, mostly with a lot of success. However, when we observe walls that are crumbling due to lack of care or, even worse, to bad construction practices, we do not need rocket science to see that something has gone seriously wrong and that we must find a cure.

With every day that goes by, all aspects of defense of our environment become more and more critical. For an island like Margarita that lives of tourism and that is faced with increasingly heavy competition from other locations, the avoidance of visual contamination is more than critical, it is vital.

The Daily Journal June 25, 1999

Friday, May 28, 1999

Margarita as the El Dorado of golden Years of tourism

In tourism, as in so many other activities, the correct identification of a market segment and the true specialization in attending to this market is of utmost importance. One prime example of this is Playa El Yaque in Margarita. With the help of Mother Nature, this site was identified as a prime spot to develop one particular market, windsurfing. While the rest of the island’s generic tourism sector, which only with a few exceptions lacks any character at all, is suffering through a severe recession, entrepreneurs and hotel operators in Playa El Yaque have found the going much smoother.

I am convinced that one of the principle challenges of our society today is that of creating new and productive jobs for our younger generations, by choosing the right productive sector and designing strategies that will allow us to develop and take advantage of our competitive advantages.

For Margarita, the industry of rendering services for the elderly presents an interesting option. Whether in tourism, recreation or general care, those living through their "golden years" demand so many services that they represent a real El Dorado, in terms of job creation.

What can Margarita do to explore and capitalize on this opportunity in the name of Venezuela? A lot, I think. Margarita has the people, has good communications and has the perfect natural setting, with calm beaches, absence of hurricanes and a minimum of 280 days of sun per year. Additionally it has the Centro Medico Nueva Esparta (CMNE) and that in my opinion is the ideal place to use as a flagship for the promotion of this new sector.

The CMNE is a hospital with modern and impressive installations located on a hill in La Asuncion, near the Castillo of Santa Rosa. The property currently belongs to Fogade who must soon define what the infrastructure will be used for and who will ultimately own it.

Should CMNE with the help of specialized firms and universities, both foreign and local, be able to truly specialize in the care of the elderly, including medical services, equipment, development of post-graduate courses, nursing schools, recreation and other activities and necessities, I suspect that local authorities will have a very powerful tool with which to attract the required international investment, technology and know-how.

In this respect the value of CMNE would also increase if an annex originally designed to be a Spa was to be finished, thereby making more specialized rooms available. For this purpose perhaps one could use financing packages put together by multilateral agencies and that I believe are already earmarked for tourism infrastructure.

Nothing I have proposed in this article has been said with the intention of suggesting that the other hospitals and clinics on the island of Margarita are not capable of offering similar or better service than the CMNE. Also none of the above implies that CMNE, "photographed" from another angle, cannot continue to provide valuable support, as an excellent general hospital, to local and international tourists and, of course, to the local population as a whole.

Although CMNE could signify in itself a powerful tool in developing the sector, it is no less true that other institutional efforts are required. One of the peculiarities of tourism for the elderly is that it should not be adventure tourism and requires above average confidence in the quality of the services rendered. One should therefore contemplate the creation of a Regulatory Board with sufficient authority to oversee and intervene in matters of tariffs and quality of the services offered.

If Margarita were to have a CMNE specialized in tending to the elderly as well as a dedicated and qualified Regulatory Board, there would be many opportunities for projects that today are outright impossible without a minimum of institutional support. In my particular case, for example, due to my close connections with Nordic countries, I could very well be interested in developing a small resort designed to cater to the elderly of this particular market, including specialized baths, few stair cases or physical obstacles, nearby flowered areas, etc.

The island’s Governor, Irene Saez, is without discussion a person with many of the qualifications necessary to take over the vital role of Ambassador of the Island of Margarita to the world. It would be a great shame to miss this opportunity simply because we have not provided the necessary tools that would enable us to be truly competitive in an increasingly complicated market.

How I would like to see IRENE take a flashy promotional video on her next trip abroad, packed with images that show how we have successfully joined forces to make Margarita the world’s foremost place to spend some of those golden years and among these, some images of the renamed Hospital SANTA ROSA.

Published in the Daily Journal, Caracas, May 28, 1999

Friday, May 14, 1999

Adventure tourism

Nag, nag, nag about not being able to develop our tourism as we should … but perhaps there’s still hope. On this marvelous island, where the ingenuity and genes of its native and assimilated population are put to work full-time to confront all adversities with spunk and élan, new promotional strategies for increasing tourism are being designed.

As a sales tax was recently introduced in this previously unspoiled paradise, the merchants, instead of despairing, have instead taken it as an opportunity to offer all those tourists, who are so burdened with taxes in their homelands, the possibility of participating in the exhilarating experience of evading taxes. Just a variant of adventure tourism! To that effect some Tax-Evasion-Certificates are currently being designed, and there is great optimism that these will be able to compete successfully with any of the dried and lacquered fish sold in other souvenir shops around the Caribbean. The local authorities, not wanting to be left behind, are also studying the possibility of raffling one citation by their taxmen among every five thousand tourists. Clearly it should be the highlight of a trip for a Hans from Hamburg to be able to frame and hang a citation in his living room from which he escaped by taking the plane one hour before he was to appear in tax court. It sure must beat a couple of hours of those boring videos that friends abhor.

The same goes for corruption and, just to prove they have nothing against videos per-se, a local production company is setting up arrangements so that tourists can fall into the local nets of the slightly overweight transit police who have bugged everyone on the island for generations, and thereafter work themselves out of the mess­, on camera. Clearly a video of one bribing the authorities must beat any African antelope head on the walls, no matter how wide its horns.

Extracted from the Daily Journal, Caracas, May 14 1999 and republished in Voice and Noise

Not much added value to the tax on Margarita Island

If there is anything that has to do with economics that has been proven with absolute clarity over the last few decades is the unsurpassable capacity of the Venezuelan State to misspend its resources. In this sense, an recipe for getting ourselves out of this inherited economic disaster that begins with the transfer of additional resources to the government is utterly incomprehensible to me, and I am a fierce enemy of all new taxation, even more so when we are talking about the Value Added Tax (IVA) that does not provide even the slightest redistribution of income.

However, in the case of the Island of Margarita, I refuse to spend much of my energy in protesting the recently decreed VAT. My reasons? As the say in local argot, what’s one more stripe for a tiger?

In Venezuela today, tourism is the only sector that promises the potential of creating so many externally competitive and productive jobs. The Dominican Republic’s income from tourism during last year was in the neighborhood of US$ 2.5 billion. There is no question that today we should be rallying the entire country around a National Plan for Tourism, centered principally in Margarita.

But no! In September of last year, instead of investing in a submarine cable to Margarita from the mainland so as to be able to supply the island with cheap energy (a public service of utmost importance to tourism), the latter divested in tourism when it blithely sent the US$ 60 million obtained from the privatization of its power company to the National Treasury. Margarita’s hotels often spend more for power than they do in covering its payroll.

A real plan to promote tourism on the island would focus everyone on finding solutions for getting water to the island’s population and hotels cheaply and securely. This could, for example, be done either by installing a new pipeline under the sea from the mainland financed by multilateral entities or by offering to supply free or cheap gas which would permit the fueling of desalination plants that would not be ruinously expensive. Today, all we see are plans to install gas lines so as to be able to sell gas to the island at international prices.

Anyone that had a real interest in promoting tourism on Margarita would not allow the Bolivar to overvalue to the point that the only tourism promoted is the international tourism of Venezuelans.

Anyone that had a real interest in promoting tourism on Margarita would have offered fuel at marginal cost to all international flights that come from more that 1,000 kilometers away, that carry 100 tourists that will stay for over one week. In Europe, for every 100 units paid for gasoline by the consumer, only 10 goes to the producer of the same. I am sure that each barrel “given as a gift to tourism” would be economically more beneficial to the country than its direct sale.

More investment in Margarita would create more jobs. Instead, mediocre advisors recommend the application of the VAT for Margarita in the name of anti-national national solidarity and based on minor issues that only promote equality downwards. Even some representatives of the private sector applaud the application of another tax.

For Heaven’s sake, let us create some added value on the island before we think of taxing it!

Published in the Daily Journal, Caracas, May 14, 1999