'Get a boat!' Venezuela flights booked full for months

Tue Sep 24, 2013 11:58am EDT
 
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By Girish Gupta and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) - If you live in Venezuela and want to fly abroad, get in line.

Flights are booked solid months in advance, not from a new interest in exotic destinations but because locals are profiting from a play on the nation's tightly controlled currency market.

The airline scramble has added to shortages, power cuts and runaway prices as another symbol of the Byzantine economic challenges facing the new government of President Nicolas Maduro in the South American OPEC nation.

"It's like you're trapped here," said travel agent Doris Gaal, telling a customer he would be better off taking a boat to a Caribbean island because the daily flights are fully booked. "It's all because of these stupid dollars!"

After a decade of currency controls set up by late socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2003, the disparity between the official and black-market rates for the local bolivar currency is higher than ever. Greenbacks now sell on the illegal market at about seven times the government price of 6.3 to the dollar.

There are strict limits on the availability of dollars at the 6.3 rate, but Venezuelans are cashing in on a special currency provision for travelers. With a valid airline ticket, Venezuelans may exchange up to $3,000 at the government rate.

Some are not even flying, leaving many planes half empty.

"It is possible to travel abroad for free due to this exchange rate magic," said local economist Angel Garcia Banchs.   Continued...

 
A passenger walks at the Simon Bolivar airport in La Guaira, outside Caracas September 23, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins