Venezuela’s product shortages have become so severe that some hotels in that country are asking guests to bring their own toilet paper and soap, a local tourism industry spokesman said on Wednesday.
In Merida, a state in western Venezuelan that's known for its stunning mountain landscapes, small hotels are struggling to stock their rooms with basic supplies, especially as the busy Semana Santa or Holy Week holiday gets underway.
“It’s an extreme situation,” says Xinia Camacho, owner of a 20-room boutique hotel in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada national park. “For over a year we haven’t had toilet paper, soap, any kind of milk, coffee or sugar. So we have to tell our guests to come prepared.”
Gerardo Montilla, president of Merida’s tourism chamber, told Fusion that product shortages are hitting smaller hotels particularly hard during the busy vacation week.
“Five hotels have told me they are going through this situation, where they have to ask guests to bring their own toilet paper,” Montilla told Fusion. “We’re near the border with Colombia, just two and a half hours away, and lots of [Venezuelan] goods are taken there, because they sell for more money in Colombia.”
Montilla says bigger hotels can circumvent product shortages by buying toilet paper and other basic supplies from black market smugglers who charge up to 6-times the regular price. But smaller, family-run hotels can't always afford to pay such steep prices, which means that sometimes they have to make do without.
Camacho says she refuses to buy toilet paper from the black market on principle.
“In the black market you have to pay 110 bolivares [$0.50] for a roll of toilet paper that usually costs 17 bolivares [$ 0.08] in the supermarket,” Camacho told Fusion. “We don’t want to participate in the corruption of the black market, and I don’t have four hours a day to line up for toilet paper" at a supermarket.
As a result, Camacho said she's been asking her guests to bring their own toilet paper since December.
But now even that is getting difficult.
Recently, Venezuelan officials have been stopping people from transporting essential goods across the country in an effort to stem the flow of contraband. So now Camacho's guests could potentially have their toilet paper confiscated before they even make it to the hotel. “It’s an absurd situation,” the hotel owner said.
Tourism associations elsewhere in Venezuela complained about similar product shortages prior to the carnival holiday last February, another peak season for local travel. Back then the Superior Council for Tourism, a national trade association, reported that hotels in eastern Venezuela were asking guests to bring their own toilet paper.
The government has not responded to the complaints, nor shown a willingness to spare a square.
Instead the government is reporting high growth rates in internal tourism — which, in good part is due to the devaluation of Venezuela’s currency, which has made it increasingly difficult for vacationers to travel abroad. The government is also promoting Venezuela travel with videos like this one, which features the daughter of National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
Camacho, who opened her hotel eighteen years ago, says she’s never seen such severe product shortages. The crisis has forced her to get inventive and source her restaurant locally.
“We have no beef or sea fish, which is in high demand during the Holy Week,” Camacho said. “Instead we cook trout and duck, and sometimes lamb, which is produced here in Merida.”
Despite the difficulties, Camacho, 64, says she and her German partner, Peter Lauterbach, have managed to get by. But she's not optimistic about her country’s future. In fact, Camacho says she's not even comfortable telling foreigners to visit, even though she works in the tourism industry.
“I love Merida and I love Venezuela, but I can’t be irresponsible; I can’t tell a foreign tourist to come to Venezuela. As soon as they get off the plane they will encounter risks,” she says.
A promotional video for Merida paints things in another light
Product shortages are not the only challenge for tourists in Venezuela. The socialist-run country also has South America’s highest murder rate, and an archaic foreign exchange system that essentially forces tourists to carry big wads of U.S. dollars with them to avoid the expensive rates that are charged by banks if they pay for things with credit cards or take money from an ATM.
On the other hand, without toilet paper, that wad of bills could come in handy in a pinch.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.