By Tom Ashby
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela restricted travel to its stricken Caribbean coast on Tuesday to discourage gawking ''catastrophe tourists'' from adding to the crush of people impeding rescue efforts where up to 50,000 people may have died.
''There are too many people in the area who have no business being there, doing what I regret to have to call catastrophe tourism,'' Education Minister Hector Navarro told a press conference.
Having evacuated about 100,000 people from the devastated coast of Vargas state, just north of Caracas, authorities turned their attention to helping 300,000 people survive without clean water, fresh food or sanitation in the wake of the mudslides and floods that struck two weeks ago.
But efforts were hampered by groups returning to look for lost family, people trying to salvage their belongings and the catastrophe tourists.
''It is unacceptable to have youths with cups full of soda taking pleasure trips down there, taking photographs with their girlfriends,'' Navarro said.
Groups of curious city-dwellers have come to the disaster area from Caracas in recent days, gawking at the destruction and snapping pictures.
Heavy machinery continued to reopen the road along the rugged coast, just an hour's drive from Caracas, where whole towns were swept away by avalanches of mud, rocks and trees after weeks of torrential rains.
Health Minister Gilberto Rodriguez said the government had restricted access to the muddy track used to take emergency aid to remote towns after growing numbers of ordinary vehicles created gridlock.
Toll Could Reach 50,000
The death toll from one of Latin America's worst disasters of the 20th century was still rising as the government turned its attention to preventing epidemics.
George Weber, a senior Red Cross official, said the disaster was two or three times worse than Hurricane Mitch that killed 9,000 in Central America a year ago.
''All the figures I have received here say there were between 20,000 and 50,000 dead,'' he told a news conference.
The government has estimated up to 30,000 may have died. But with most victims buried alive or swept out to sea, an accurate figure may never be known.
Rodriguez said the government was preparing a presidential decree to convert two destroyed beach resort towns into ''sacred ground'', or de facto cemeteries.
The government said there was a ''critical risk'' of epidemics among those left in Vargas, although none had broken out.
In a grim pamphlet outlining preventive measures, it said dogs were digging up corpses, spreading diseases and would have to be exterminated if they could not be removed from the area.
Solid waste including human corpses should be burned every two or three days to avoid the propagation of flies, the pamphlet added. It also advised measles vaccines for anyone spending more than two weeks in the crowded refugee centers.
More rain was forecast for Venezuela over the next few days and Rodriguez said the government would move about 2,500 people out of some precarious slums on hillsides around the capital.
Venezuela has received international aid to the tune of $35 million in cash, and 47 countries have helped with disaster relief in the form of paramedics and rescue teams.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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