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Venezuelan paradise left in crisis

Associated Press Associated Press 18/09/2016 Fabiola Sanchez

This resort island was once mobbed with international tourists who loved the sparkling blue water, fine white sand and flawless sunny days. Now, swimming pools are empty, toilets don't flush and many hotels can't afford to offer meal service.

Crisis-wracked Venezuela gave the island community of 600,000 a last-minute clean-up to host leaders from the developing world for this month's summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. But all the attention can't hide the steep decline the island has suffered as the socialist country sinks into economic and social collapse.

One of the most maddening problems for locals is daily water cuts government critics blame on lack of infrastructure maintenance. Hotel manager Luis Munoz says he counts himself lucky to see running water every two weeks.

Munoz left his job as an engineer six years ago to open a colonial-style hotel on the beach here with 46 rooms. Until recently, he was doing well, catering to international tourists, well-do-to Venezuelans and groups of schoolchildren on government-sponsored trips.

Now, every day has become a struggle.

``The important thing is to get by; that's what we focus on,'' he said, standing in his hotel lobby without a guest in sight.

Overall hotel occupancy has fallen to 35 per cent this year, according to the local tourist board. Flights into the island are down 50 per cent. The crash has been devastating to people working in tourism, who are also grappling with the severe food shortages and raging inflation plaguing the rest of the country.

Like most Venezuelans, Munoz, 42, passes hours each week waiting in lines to try to buy basic goods at subsidised prices.

The few guests who still book his rooms must pack in their own soap, towels and even toilet paper. He manages to keep his hotel's murky pool filled from a well. But food shortages have forced him to suspend meal service.

``How can you offer breakfast if you don't even know what you might find to eat for breakfast yourself?'' he said.

Top officials flying in from around the world for the summit of the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement will see infrastructure from Margarita Island's glory days, including large waterfront hotels and three sprawling shopping centres featuring high-end stores, though they are now mostly empty.

World leaders attending the summit include Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuador President Rafael Correa.

From the outside, the site that will host the summit, the Hotel Venetur Margarita, still looks like it could be a five-star hotel in Miami or Aruba. It was once managed by Hilton International, and in 2009 housed the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

Former President Hugo Chavez later expropriated the hotel. Last month, water cuts put the lobby bathrooms out of service. Workers placed jugs of water in the bathroom for guests to wash their hands.

International tourists have begun to shun Venezuela in recent years as it has become one of the most violent countries in the world, and a complex currency system makes it difficult to change money.

A decade ago, 40 per cent of Margarita Island tourists came from abroad, according to Chamber of Tourism President Igor Viloria. Now just four per cent of tourists are international.

And while many Venezuelans continue to spend weekends on the beach, few can afford a plane ticket and hotel.

"It's beautiful here, but you get tired of the high prices everywhere," said Dr Ahola Catias, one of the few domestic tourists at the island this week. Instead, more people make day trips to the coast, or camp out overnight to save money.

That's left the business community here reeling, with no help in sight.

Julio Gonzalez is struggling to keep his bathing suit and towel shop open. Sales are down 70 per cent this year, he said as he gazed out on Playa El Agua, a nearly deserted white-sand beach.

As recently as two years ago, the beach was filled each day by throngs of tourists. At night, they packed into the 200 restaurants that once lined the waterfront promenade.

Those shops were bulldozed by the government in 2014 to make way for a larger tourism revitalisation effort, but that project has been beset by delays, and today the beach is desolate.

``It's really been a blow,'' Gonzalez said. ``We used to have so many tourists, and now we have nothing. We've never seen anything like this.''

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