Somewhere along the coast of Brazil, two American tourists are preparing to head up the Amazon River and slowly make their way toward the Venezuelan border. What happens when they arrive there, however, may be the real adventure.
Over the last week and a half, Venezuela has abruptly and haphazardly rolled out new visa requirements for U.S. tourists. President Nicolás Maduro made the announcement Feb. 28 and the law was published on March 3, but until recently some of Venezuela’s embassies said they didn’t have the documentation needed to issue the visas.
The new obstacle has caught the business and tourism community by surprise.
Tucan Travel, based in London, runs overland trips through Brazil, across Venezuela, and into Colombia. Two of the travelers in the current group are from the United States, said Jess Millet, the communications director for the organization.
“Some of the American clients started traveling from Quito [Ecuador] in November and they were just informed about the visa changes on Saturday,” she said.
Even if they could approach a consulate, the embassy says it could take up to 90 days to process a visa. So the two travelers “have decided they will take their chances at the border,” Millet said.
American Airlines, which has two flights a day from the United States to Caracas and five a week to Maracaibo, has been letting its clients know about the changes. It’s also giving them the opportunity to cancel or change their trips without cost, the company said.
But others haven’t been so lucky. Paul Stanley, with Angel-Eco Tours in Venezuela, runs trips to Angel Falls (the world’s tallest waterfall) and Canaima National Park. He said a few of his clients only found out about the visa requirement when they went to board their flights in the United States.
“This was so sudden that it has caught people by surprise,” he said. “We’re trying to look through our reservations now and let people know.”
Even the Venezuelan government seems to have been taken off guard. Days after the legislation went into effect, some embassies said they hadn’t received instructions about issuing the visas. The Venezuelan embassy in Washington did not make the visa requirements public until Thursday night — almost 72 hours after the law went into effect.
Now, travelers on the hunt for visas must contact the Venezuelan embassy or one of seven consulates: Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Adriana Kostencki, an immigration lawyer in Miami and a president of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, said South Florida travelers are being particularly hard hit. Since Venezuela closed its Miami consulate in 2012, the closest office is more than 600 miles away in New Orleans.
One of her clients, a U.S. citizen for over 25 years with an expired Venezuelan passport, is traveling to San Francisco next week to get a visa — because that was the only consulate that answered the phone.
Kostencki has also been contacted by Venezuelans who traveled to South Florida with minors who are U.S. citizens. Suddenly, their children may need visas and they’re not sure how to get the whole family back home.
Adding to the confusion are varying airline policies. While some airlines are requiring U.S. passport holders to have a visa, others will allow U.S. citizens who were born in Venezuela to travel with an expired Venezuelan passport if they have an unexpired U.S. passport, Kostencki said.
“In theory under international law you cannot be denied entry to your own country,” she explained. But it’s still unclear how immigration authorities in Venezuela will handle these cases, she said.
Answers are hard to find. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the consulate websites provided by the embassy were down, and the consular section in Washington was not answering the phones.
But the embassy website lays out the requirements. Along with run-of-the-mill documents, travelers will need to show rent or home ownership records, and bank statements. For travelers going overland, the requirements are even trickier. The embassy in Colombia, which borders Venezuela, is asking applicants for notarized copies of their criminal records and proof of employment — documents that the casual backpacker might not have handy.
“Let’s just say that we’re not looking forward to the effect this will have on tourism,” said Rafael Guerra, the secretary of ConseTurismo, an association of Venezuelan tourism companies. “Measures like this can only have a negative impact on activity in the country.”
In truth, the flow of U.S. tourists to Venezuela had already slowed to a trickle. Years of deteriorating relations, and the steady drumbeat of bad news out of Caracas has spooked all but the most adventurous travelers.
The Ministry of Tourism says the country receives 36,000 U.S. visitors a year, but some in the industry believe the figure is inflated.
Even so, for the country to turn its back on the U.S. market, which spends more on international travel than every nation but China and Germany, is unfortunate, Guerra said.
The new visa regulations come at a time when many thought the industry might be a bright spot amid falling crude prices. New exchange-rate rules make the country more affordable for those with dollars and the country is a short flight from South Florida.
“The United States is a natural market,” Guerra said.
For President Nicolás Maduro, the visa measure is about fairness and protecting the fatherland. After all, Venezuelan travelers to the United States need visas — and the process for getting one can be long, grueling and expensive.
In addition, Maduro has long-accused the United States of being behind alleged coup plots. He said the visa requirements will allow the government to keep tabs on who’s coming in and out of the country.
The rules make Venezuela — along with Brazil and Paraguay — the third country in South America to require pre-departure visas. Bolivia also requires a visa, but it can be purchased upon arrival at the airport. And Argentina requires the payment of a reciprocal fee prior to embarkation.
With all that Venezuela has to offer travelers, the new rules are a shame, said Stanley.
“This country is so beautiful and tourism could be a huge thing down here,” he said. “If it was just done right.”
Correction: A previous version of this article omitted Paraguay in the list of countries that require visas.
Venezuela Visa FAQs:
Who needs a visa?
All U.S. nationals traveling with an ordinary U.S. passports need a visa.
Where can I get a Venezuela visa?
You can apply for a visa at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C., or at one of six consulates: Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
How long will it take?
The embassy recommends applying for a visa 90 days before traveling. But some offices have said it could be as quick as two weeks.
What information is needed?