Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Venezuelan President Hugo ChavezIsrael news photo: (file)

Venezuela, under President Hugo Chavez, is taking additional steps to deter Israelis from visiting the country. An Israeli tour group slated to visit Venezuela was forced to cancel its trip this week due to unreasonable demands placed on the would-be tourists.

The group of 13 Israelis was set to fly to Venezuela in coming days, with lodging, tours and flights already arranged by an Israeli travel company, Echo Outdoor Touring Ltd.  When Echo requested tourist visas for its clients, the demands of the Venezuelan government placed an insurmountable barrier that ultimately led to the cancellation of the trip.

The difficulties began with the absence of a Venezuelan diplomatic presence in Israel. In January of this year, Venezuela expelled Israel's ambassador from the country and cut diplomatic relations. Israel responded by expelling Venezuela's ambassador to Israel. Under the current circumstances, Israelis seeking a Venezuelan visa must apply through a consulate outside Israel.

In its efforts to secure the necessary travel documents, Echo contacted Venezuelan embassies and diplomatic personnel in Kenya, Spain, Greece, Italy, Germany and Colombia, as well as appealing to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry.

As Echo CEO Ronen Raz told Arutz Sheva Radio, "It is an accepted procedure, when there is no consulate in Israel of a country that requires visas, we simply send the passports abroad and receive the visas." In the case of Venezuela, Raz continued, the initial reply from that nation's Foreign Ministry was that such an arrangement was not possible.

However, after lengthy negotiations, the Venezuelans agreed to accept the Israelis' visa applications in the Venezuelan embassy in Amman, Jordan. "There, to our surprise, they demanded that we appear in person with a pile of documentation in order to receive the visas," Raz said. "There are those who are afraid to travel to Jordan."

Requested documents included a letter in English from each traveler's place of employment, affirming his or her employment status, original bank statements going back three months, an English-language medical affirmation of health, and more.

Several days of what Raz called "ping-pong" with the Venezuelan authorities ensued, including the Echo CEO calling on his personal connections in the Latin American country. Nonetheless, as noted, the trip had to be called off due to the

The trip had to be called off due the excessive demands and inflexibility of the Venezuelan authorities.

excessive demands and inflexibility of the Venezuelan authorities when it came to the Israeli tour group.

"The company had no choice but to cancel the trip and return the travelers' money to them, which meant absorbing a large financial loss," an Echo statement explained. "As a result of the difficulties placed in our way by the government [in Venezuela] - difficulties which never existed while there was an embassy in Israel - we have no choice but to conclude that these difficulties are a result of the political situation in the country and their only purpose is to prevent Israeli travelers from getting there."

The company has decided to suspend further trips to Venezuela until the binational relations with Israel are restored.

Iran is a Different Story

In the case of Iran, however, the matter is quite different, according to Israeli sources. In July, an Israeli diplomat in Latin America, Dorit Shavit, told the Jewish News Agency of Argentina (AJN) that Venezuela is issuing fake documents to Iranians to help facilitate their travel in the region.

"With these documents, they don't need a visa to enter any other country in Latin America.... No tourist enjoys these benefits and nobody knows what these Iranian citizens are doing," she added.

Israeli officials have criticized Venezuela's President Chavez for his support of Iran's nuclear program, his support of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his outspoken condemnation of Israel.