At height of tourism season, Zika virus puts Caribbean economies at risk

The Caribbean is one of the most tourism-dependent regions in the world. Comprised of more than 700 islands spanning 30 territories, the West Indies sees more than 25 million visitors annually and the U.S. is its No. 1 source. About 15 million Americans visit the Caribbean for vacation every year, contributing nearly $50 billion toward the region’s overall GDP.

So with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcing a level two travel warning — meaning the agency is issuing a caution, but stopping short of telling people to avoid travel there — due to a presence of the Zika virus in several Caribbean nations, an essential part of Caribbean economies could take a hit. The travel alert poses a significant threat to islands like Barbados, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, where foreigners often flock to escape winter.

“We call them snow birds,” said Hugh Riley, Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO). “Not only is this the most popular travel time of year, but the Caribbean is on a strong trajectory right now in terms of visitors to the region overall.”

Riley said the Zika virus hasn’t had any significant impact on arrivals to the Caribbean so far but the data relies primarily on cancellations. What worries him most is what Riley calls “missed business.” That is the unknown number of people who may opt out of booking travel to the Caribbean altogether.

Dr. James Hospedales, executive director of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), said some of the most vulnerable destinations could be at risk.

“We’re very concerned about it. And it’s hard to avoid the media amplification,” he said. “Even a 2-to-3 percent decline in tourism is a huge blow, especially for countries that are already in debt or whose economies are struggling.”

This week several Caribbean nations have stepped up efforts to combat the spread of the disease. France’s health ministry is sending additional medical equipment and personnel after reaching “epidemic” levels in two of its Caribbean territories: Martinique and French Guiana. Together, both countries have more 2,500 potential Zika cases, 100 of those have been confirmed.

For now, the priority is minimizing the spread of the virus throughout the Caribbean, both for nationals and visitors. Many nations including Jamaica and Suriname have announced plans to step up Zika prevention. But countries where poverty and environmental degradation are more prevalent are especially at risk, including Haiti and Guyana. Dr. Hospedales said, similar to last year’s spread of the chikungunya virus, Zika will spread quickly.

“It’s a new disease that is evolving in our region. But the majority of people who get Zika don’t get ill so it’s hard to count them,” he said. “Still, we’re enhancing our existing surveillance systems. We’re keeping track of which islands and which areas are experiencing it.”

At the height of tourism season, Riley said the best way to prevent a dent in tourism revenue is to address the issue head on.

“We need to make sure people aren’t cancelling their vacations and making life-changing decisions based on misinformation,” he said. “We’re not at all shy about pointing out there are very few [confirmed] cases that have popped up in the Caribbean and there is no link we can find between Zika and microcephaly (a severe birth defect). But we understand that is the main source of people’s concern.”

The CTO and CARPHA together released travel facts and guidelines for would-be visitors worried about a potential Zika outbreak. To further calm fears, the Caribbean Tourism Organization gives 10 reasons why visitors shouldn’t cancel their trip.

CARPHA’s Dr. James Hospedales said Caribbean governments and health officials are working tirelessly to reduce the risks, but that visitors shouldn’t avoid the region out of fear.

“We want people to know you can come to the Caribbean and not let mosquitoes ruin your vacation. Just take the normal precautions,” he said.