Zika, the mosquito-borne virus associated with fetal birth defects, has bitten hard into the travel business as it has spread across the Caribbean, resulting in enticing deals in the present shoulder season and traveler uncertainty about what to do over the coming holidays.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Zika now touches 29 Caribbean island nations and territories, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as Mexico and Central America. Except for Chile and Uruguay, it’s found throughout South America. But it’s not solely a Western Hemisphere problem: Zika has been detected in Southeast Asia, including the Maldives, Thailand and Vietnam, and is present in some Pacific island nations.
Since last February when the World Health Organization declared Zika an emergency, the virus has influenced North American travel patterns based on demographics. The CDC advises pregnant women and those seeking to become pregnant to avoid unnecessary travel in Zika regions.
“Zika has primarily affected the destination wedding and honeymoons business because these are people of childbearing years coming to celebrate romance, and there are plenty of honeymoon babies,” said Matt Cooper, chief marketing officer with the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association.
Some destinations out of the Zika zone report an uptick in traffic, such as Bermuda where leisure visits are up 12 percent this year. Though their increase can’t definitively be tied to Zika, the number of travelers ages 25 to 34 was up 23 percent through June.
Zika is transmitted primarily through infected Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, which also spread the dengue and chikungunya viruses. There is no vaccine for these viruses, and travelers are advised to wear long sleeves and pants and apply bug spray.
“Always try to avoid insects because many people get infected without knowing it and can unknowingly pass it on through sexual transmission,” said Assunta Uffer-Marcolongo, president of the nonprofit International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers.
The organization’s website, iamat.org, contains health advice by country, including regional Zika outbreaks, as well as a guide to preventing insect bites.
For those not in the childbearing demographic, destinations in the Caribbean, Latin America and Florida are offering a mix of information on the outbreak and financial incentive to visit.
Among Americans with Zika, the only locally acquired cases have been in Florida, predominantly in a small area in Miami’s art-filled Wynwood neighborhood near downtown and a 4.5-square-mile area in Miami Beach.
Since Zika was detected in Wynwood in July, abatement efforts have been successful, and on Sept. 19, the CDC noted that no new cases of the virus had been detected in three mosquito incubation periods, about 45 days, and lifted the travel warning.
“We are very optimistic because the same plan that was implemented in Wynwood is being implemented in Miami Beach,” said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
That plan includes draining standing water and spraying the area from the ground and, controversially, the air. Its efficacy may be encouraged by cooler, drier fall weather when mosquito activity drops.
The bureau maintains updated travel advisory information on its website, miamiandbeaches.com. It also rounds up hotel deals, including up to 15 percent off rooms at the trendy Hotel of South Beach through December.
— MEXICO AND CENTRAL AMERICA
Mexico is on the CDC’s list of countries with Zika, but some operators in popular destinations, including Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos,
claim they are Zika-free. The CDC also maintains a map on its website, noting that regions above 6,500 feet elevation, which includes Mexico City and Puebla, are unlikely to be affected as mosquitoes cannot survive there.
“Because of the warning for Mexico, many people assume that the whole country has been affected, but that is not the case,” wrote Antonio Duran, director of sales at SunRock Condo Hotel in Cabo San Lucas, in an email.
In May, the Mexican Health Ministry reported one case of Zika in the Yucatán and none in the state of Quintana Roo, home to Cancún and the Riviera Maya. Shoulder-season deals here include a 35 percent discount at the Royal Hideaway Playacar Resort through Dec. 20.
In Costa Rica, also on the CDC list, Hans Pfister, a founder of the Cayuga Collection resort, which includes the eco-lodge Lapa Rios, says the honeymooners who often took offseason trips in spring and fall trailed off. But the family market picked up in July and August and over the forthcoming holidays. The company offers shoulder-season deals, including the fourth night free at Lapa Rios through Dec. 20.
“One misconception is that the further away you are in the jungle, the more likely you are to get a tropical disease, and it’s not true,” he said. “If you’re in a balanced ecosystem with natural predators for mosquitoes, you’re better off.”
The number of Caribbean islands with Zika seems to grow weekly. St. Kitts and Nevis were recently added to the list.
Puerto Rico has been hardest hit, with over 21,000 locally acquired cases through Sept. 28, according to the CDC. Though the Puerto Rico Tourism Company says nonresident visitor numbers dropped just one percent from February to July, it is fighting back with an information campaign devoted to prevention at seepuertorico.com. It has also enlisted stars like Olympic tennis gold medalist Monica Puig to talk about protection. The CDC recently announced a $13 million investment in the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust for mosquito control.
The fallout means bargains galore. CheapCaribbean.com has Puerto Rico packages including, recently, a four-night deal with airfare for $399 at the luxury hotel El Conquistador, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, through Dec. 22.
Many Caribbean resorts supply free bug spray or sell it. Le Guanahani in St. Barts will reopen Oct. 20 after its annual two-month closure, giving management further opportunity to treat its gardens and starve mosquitoes of their victims.
Cooler weather means fewer mosquitoes and, it is hoped, fewer Zika cases. The December holiday season is the highest of high seasons in the region with few deals at top resorts, especially because Christmas and New Year’s fall on weekends this year. But if you can wait a week later, in January, the Four Seasons Resort Nevis is offering five nights for the price of four.
— CARIBBEAN CRUISES
Though Caribbean cruises account for the greatest share of departures worldwide (about one third), cruising in the region has been remarkably resilient in the face of Zika. It may have to do with demographics. The Cruise Line Industry Association, made up of most of the industry’s largest lines, reports that the average North American passenger is 49 years old, largely beyond the procreating years though almost a quarter of its passengers are ages 30 to 39.
“They’re probably thinking that if they’re in the middle of the ocean, they’re not getting bitten by mosquitoes,” said Bob Levinstein, chief executive of CruiseCompete.com, a cruise comparison site, where a recent search turned up a seven-night cruise in December for less than $600 a person.
“Bookings are up, and prices are down because there’s lots of capacity,” he said.