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Park inhabitants

 

Humans have been present in the park since the first millennium of our era. Recent archaeological studies indicate that indigenous people frequently visited the archipelago. They navigated from the mainland to fish, capture turtles and queen conchs, and extract salt in Los Roques. These activities followed until the time of the Spanish occupation when fishers, pearl divers, and mangrove harvesters began to visit the archipelago, and pirates and smugglers used it as a base or hiding place. By the middle of the 18th century, Los Roques was a very important place for guano harvesting. In 1866, the Venezuelan government signed an agreement with a Dutch businessman for the extraction and commercialization of guano from Los Roques. Also during this period, fishers and salt harvesters from Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire visited the archipelago. The peculiar names of most of the keys in the archipelago we owe these visitors; names that end in "qui," which is a deviation from the English word "key" (Northeast Key: Nordisquí, Sails Key: Selesquí, St. Louis Key: Celuisquí, to name a few).

 

It was not until the middle of the 20th century that Venezuelan fishers started to inhabit the archipelago permanently. They came from Margarita Island and progressively brought their families with them. By 1941, Los Roques had a population of 484 people spread amongst eight islands (Gran Roque, Crasquí, Carenero, Cayo Pirata, Domusquí, Esparquí, Isla Fernando and Prestonquí). The population had grown to 559 people by 1950. In 1956, there was a school running in Gran Roque, electricity was generated with fuel, and there were plans to build a desalination plant (SCNLS 1956). After the national park was created, population was limited to Gran Roque Island. In 1987, Los Roques Scientific Foundation performed a census and determined there were 847 inhabitants in Gran Roque. Only 663 of these were permanent residents and the rest were fishers that came from Margarita (Posada & Brunetti 1988). Presently, the island has 1,209 permanent residents, which include native settlers, tourist operators, and institutional personnel (AUA 2001).

 

Historically, fishing has been the major economic activity in the archipelago; however, since the early 1990s tourism has experienced an immense growth. Fishing has been strictly regulated since the creation of the national park and about 300 fishers take up temporary residence on the island during the fishing season.

 

Fishing

 

According to archaeological research done in the park, resource exploitation of fishing resources in the area dates back to pre-colonial times (Antczak & Antczak 1988). Nowadays, fishing is an important economic activity for the inhabitants of Gran Roque, and furthermore, Los Roques represents an important source of food for the rest of the country. Los Roques produces 94% of the lobster consumed in Venezuela and it also represents an important part of the high commercial value of fish species, especially the snappers and groupers (Gondelles 1997).

 

Since the management plan was created in 1991, fishing is strictly regulated by the Autonomous Fisheries Service (SARPA), a part of the Ministry of the Environment. This organization registers the size and weight of the 1,000,000 kg of fish and 120,000 kg of lobster that are extracted by Los Roques and Margarita fishers during the season. According to the superintendent, in 2000, lobster fishery revenues were in the order of 300 million bolívares (about US $300,000). About 100 people are currently dedicated to this economic activity (AUA 2001), which is less than in 1987 when research reported 172 resident fishers from a total of 767 inhabitants in the archipelago (Posada & Brunetti 1988).

 

Tourism

 

In the last decade, tourism has become important in Los Roques. Locals were not involved in tourist activities until 1990. Before this, outsiders (wealthy Venezuelans from Caracas and foreigners), who could buy houses inside the park, managed the few existing lodges. Access was restricted to light aircraft or private boats. Aerotuy was the only commercial airline operating in Los Roques at the time.

 

There are 60 lodges, 50 travel agencies and six airlines currently operating in Los Roques. However, Aerotuy still dominates the tourist industry in the area. In 2000, 49% of the tourists that traveled by air did so through Aerotuy; 43% of foreign tourists and 27% of the Venezuelan tourists stayed at 10% of the lodges, all of which are owned by Aerotuy. Tourist packages for 33% of the Venezuelan tourists were bought in the Aerotuy travel agency (AUA 2000).

 

More than 75,000 tourists visited Los Roques in 2001 (AUA 2002). At the beginning of the tourist boom, 60% of the visitors were foreigners, most of them from the United States, Italy, Spain, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. However, in the last three years, this tendency has reversed. International tourism in the country has decreased after the Vargas State landslides towards the end of 1999 (for more information see ParksWatch news). The consequent reduction of "sun and beach" destinations in the central Venezuelan littoral, and the increasing offer of affordable tour packages of one or two days to the park, has boosted local tourism. In 2001, 65% of the tourists that visited Los Roques were Venezuelan. That year, the highest tourist influx happened during school holidays from July to September, in December, Easter and at Carnival (AUA 2000).

 

Out of all the tourists that visit Los Roques, 95% of them arrive by plane while the rest travel by boat (AUA 2002). Airfare from Caracas is US $130. Most of the 60 existing lodges belong to foreign businesspeople, though some of them are the property of families from Los Roques. Lodging includes breakfast and dinner and prices range from US $50-200 per night per person. Some lodges also include transfers to islands, lunch, beach chairs, sunshade, and snorkeling equipment. Staying on a sailboat is another option for about US $150 a day per person. The cheapest option is to camp in designated INPARQUES areas. Even though Los Roques has a variety of lodging options, 96% of the tourists stay in lodges, 3% in sailboats and less than 1% camp (AUA 2000).

 

Los Roques Archipelago attracts a number of visitors that come to do many different activities. The natural beauty of the beaches attracts most tourists (AUA 2000). Coral reefs are of special interest to professional and recreational scuba divers. Sport fishing and windsurfing are also practiced in Los Roques, and it is even possible to go for a ride in an ultralight. Among other tourist attractions are the Virgen del Valle celebrations in the second week of September, and the Lobster Festival at the beginning of the lobster-fishing season in November. Sailors and Pilots also consider Los Roques to be a very interesting place because it is an amazing archipelago due to its distance from the mainland.

 

Without a doubt, tourism is the most important economic activity in the park. In Gran Roque, it generates direct employment for almost 40% of the active population between 18 and 70 years of age (AUA 2001). From 1996 to 2001, the AUA received an average of 400 million bolívares per year (about US $400,000) from tourist entrance fees paid by those who come to Los Roques by plane (AUA 2000 & ParksWatch interview).

 

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