Eco Field Trips, based in Tel Aviv, has canceled its November 2 tour to Venezuela and Colombia, due to difficulties obtaining tourist visas from the Venezuelan government.
"It's a major disappointment," Ronen Raz, Eco's general manager, said on Monday. "We put a lot of effort into organizing this special trip." He was to have been the guide.
The 13 registered participants were going to spend 20 days in South America. Fourteen days were to be designated to travel around Venezuela. This is the first time Eco Field Trips has had to cancel a trip because it was unable to obtain visas. All participants were refunded.
Since the Venezuelan Embassy in Israel was shut down in January, in response to the expulsion of Israeli diplomats by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, it has become nearly impossible for Israelis to obtain Venezuelan tourist visas.
Although it has never been a hot spot for Israeli tourists, in recent years travel to Venezuela has dropped significantly since Chavez's adoption of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies. Almost no Israelis have entered Venezuela in the past year.
According to Raz, Eco first tried to obtain visas at the Venezuelan Consulate in Ramallah. After the Ramallah office was closed, Eco attempted to go through the Venezuelan embassies in Spain, France, Germany, Greece, Kenya and Colombia. In each country the requests were rejected and referred to Venezuela's embassy in Amman. The legation in Jordan demanded that all trip participants personally bring the required forms to the embassy.
Raz tried to organize a trip to Amman for the 13 travelers. However, some feared visiting the country and others were unable to coordinate their schedules.
Raz was looking forward to taking the group to Venezuela, where he lived for two years. A fluent Spanish speaker, he loves the people and the land and says that Chavez's bias against Israel doesn't reflect the attitude of the general population.
"I spent a lot of time where Hugo Chavez grew up, in Llanos," he said, "People there are wonderful. They view Israel in religious terms. There's a lot of respect and admiration."
Although no complaints of anti-Semitism or discrimination have been lodged by Israelis traveling through Venezuela, the permanent Jewish population of about 15,000, living mostly in Caracas, has experienced violence and intimidation in recent years. Last winter, a synagogue in Caracas was desecrated and another was bombed, though nobody was injured.
Additionally, Chavez has been accused of anti-Semitism by several individuals and organizations, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center and World Jewish Congress leader Rabbi Henry Sobel of Brazil.
Many Venezuelan Jews have immigrated to the US, especially to Miami. The Jewish Agency confirms that some have made aliya as well.
Neither technical difficulties nor the Venezuelan government seem to intimidate Raz, though. Upbeat about a country he loves and optimistic about showing the beauty of Venezuela to other Israelis, he already talks about plans for 2010.
"We are planning another trip [to Venezuela] for next November and I hope that by then we can take care of the process of getting visas," he said.