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Travel restrictions crimp shopping sprees

Venezuelans must now tell the government where they are traveling and what they are buying.

A man sits on a bench as he reads a newspaper in a mall in Caracas, Feb. 3, 2003. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans accustomed to leisurely shopping sprees abroad now face a new annoyance: President Hugo Chavez wants to know exactly where they are going, what they are buying and how long they’ll be gone.

Citizens must now tell the government where they are traveling and save their receipts to provide proof of how they spent the money. Violators may see their credit cards turned off.

The government agency Cadivi has set new limits on how much hard currency each person is allowed to buy based on their destination and length of trip, giving greater allowances to travelers to the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. Vacationers heading to neighboring Colombia, which Chavez has branded a puppet of the United States, can only qualify for a maximum of $700 in currency transactions a year, the least amount of any country.

The new restrictions come just a year after Chavez slashed each citizens’ travel allowance in half.

Economists say the rules are an attempt to preserve the country’s international reserves and avoid devaluing Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar. Devaluation could cause inflation to spiral out of control at a time when it's already the highest in the hemisphere.

The new regulations have the travel industry bracing for a collapse in demand, said Maria Eugenia Troconis, manager of the Saeca Carlson Wagonlit Travel agency in Caracas. Demand for plane tickets and tourism packages in the U.S. and Europe was already off about 30 percent this year, and she expects another drop of about 40 percent in 2010.

Before Chavez started cutting dollars for international travel at the beginning of 2009, Venezuelans had grown accustomed to cheap trips abroad, benefiting from the overvalued exchange rate, which has stood at 2.15 bolivars per dollar since 2005.

The president originally implemented foreign exchange controls in 2003 to prevent capital flight during a politically volatile period. Immediately a black market for dollars developed, where Venezuelans today have to pay about 5.95 bolivars per dollar.

"This is going to affect the entire industry," said Troconis, the travel agent. The government is "putting up barriers for us."

Mirta Uzgategui, 59, owns a clothing store on Margarita Island, a shopping haven about 200 miles across the Caribbean from Caracas.

The bleach-blonde fashionista, wearing tight black jeans and a sweater before boarding a flight to Houston on her way to Los Angeles, said she travels several times a year to buy clothes for her shop. She complained that the $2,500 maximum set for travel to the U.S. doesn’t even cover one trip.