New reports on Zika’s spread, potential effect and modes of transmission surface by the day, but is it, and how is it, affecting travel to destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America? On Monday, Feb. 1, The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” while also that “there should be no restrictions on travel or trade with countries, areas and/or territories with Zika virus transmission.”
In a special survey conducted Feb. 3-5 by Travel Leaders Group, 1,102 Travel Leaders Group travel agents were polled to gauge the impact of the Zika virus on their vacation bookings among different age demographics and clients with upcoming destination weddings and honeymoons. The findings show that “the vast majority of clients are continuing with their original travel plans to destinations where there have been confirmed cases of the Zika virus,” with 74.1 percent of agents reporting no cancellations or rebookings of clients in their 20s and 30s; 89.8 percent of agents stating no cancellations or rebookings of clients in their 40s and 50s; and 93 percent of agents stating that there have been no cancellations for clients 60 years and older. Furthermore, 94.5 percent of agents indicated they received no cancellations for their destination wedding clients, and 93.3 percent of agents reported no cancellations for their honeymoon clientele.
Recommend’s Latin America Editor Carla Hunt; Caribbean Editor Ed Wetschler; and Web Editor Melissa Bryant reached out to their contacts in the travel industry, from airlines and cruise lines to travel agents and tour operators, to discover how they are responding to questions and concerns related to the Zika virus.
U.S. and Canadian Airlines Offer Travel Exemptions
Major airlines were among the first to take action, offering credits, refunds and rerouted cruise itineraries for pregnant women and their companions. United Airlines, JetBlue, WestJet and Air Canada are allowing travelers with tickets to affected areas to postpone their trip or receive a full refund. Delta’s Zika Virus Travel Advisory states that “customers may qualify for a change to alternate destinations, travel dates or a refund,” provided they make these changes by Feb. 29.
Cruise Travel Agents Report “Business as Usual”
Similarly, major cruise lines are offering cruise credits and diverting pregnant women and their companions to unaffected ports, among them are Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Lines, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America, Costa Cruises and Cunard. Despite this, Kelly Rodriguez-Laurean, a Cruise Planners franchise owner from St. Petersburg, FL, asserted, “I personally am not experiencing as many cancellations as you might expect. However, I have seen an increase in awareness about the Zika virus with my clients and they are questioning what safety precautions they should take while traveling.” In fact, she notes, “I just booked a couple in their 30s for a honeymoon to Punta Cana, another couple in the same age group to South America, and a group to Mexico.” Lainey Melnick, a CruiseOne agent from Austin, TX, also reported “very little effect in my bookings due to this outbreak.” Melnick notes, “If clients are concerned then there are other destinations to explore, so people aren’t canceling all travel, they are just switching destinations.” Debby Hughes, a fellow CruiseOne franchise owner from Big Bear City, CA, said, “I’ve only received one call from a concerned couple going on their honeymoon in Jamaica in May. The island is not on the travel warning list at this time, and we’ll be keeping an eye on the situation.”
News from the Latin America Front
As Hunt reports, the LATAM Airlines Group, LAN Airlines and its affiliates, and TAM Airlines, are offering alternatives to pregnant passengers traveling to its destinations in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Pregnant passengers who have not yet begun their travel plans to affected locations may choose to change their destination (subject to fare differences) or request a refund. To qualify for this option, the pregnant passenger must submit a medical statement from a doctor confirming the weeks of gestation. Additionally, this option is also extended to travel companions of the pregnant passenger who are booked on the same flights. A TAM spokesperson reports that the company is contributing to the educational campaign by Brazil’s Ministry of Health regarding the prevention of illness related to the Aedes aegypti mosquito, carrier of the three diseases: dengue, Zika virus and chikungunya; LAN is also distributing information on how to avoid contamination, control mosquitos and detect symptoms.
As far as tour operators are concerned, Mike Eiseman the co-founder of VIP Tour Group, a company specializing in customized experiences in South America with markets in 25 Brazilian destinations, reported no Zika virus-related cancellations to Brazil so far. However, he did note, “there are questions from travel agents and clients who are thinking of going or close to booking travel to Brazil alone, or often in conjunction with Argentina, which is not in the Zika warning zone. We are very firm about updating callers of the most current international health advisories, and we have been working to reroute the vacation itineraries of callers who are nervous about traveling to Brazil’s northeastern areas where cases of the Zika virus have been most prevalent.” The bottom line, according to Eiseman is: If clients are nervous, make plans for or change vacation arrangements to areas of Brazil and South America that are not hot and rainy, have few or no mosquitos, and areas with no record of the Zika-bearing breed. “We are finding that the less-experienced travelers are doing just that, but seasoned travelers…who are not pregnant nor immediately hoping to be so…seem to be less concerned.” Eiseman also points out that travelers who have their hearts set on attending this summer’s 2016 Olympics in Rio (August 4-22) will happily find that it is winter in Rio, the non-breeding time for mosquitos.
Tour operators are handling inquiries in different ways. “We have not received any cancellations or inquiries on travel to Brazil,” says Rosita Perez of Ladatco Tours. “I am working right now on an itinerary for an agent’s client, who wants to visit Iguassu Falls, Rio and Salvador. While this itinerary is for travel next fall, we as a company policy are making sure that agents are aware of the advisories in place right now.” Perez directed Recommend to her destination managing company in Brazil, Rio Life Tours, whose Luiz Felipe Amaral reports that “we began addressing our international partners immediately last month on the circumstances of the Zika virus, giving them important information to answer passengers’ doubts.”
According to Amaral, “hotels are working tirelessly to avoid mosquitos by fumigating their premises, using electric repellent in rooms and public areas, and keeping bug spray within guests’ reach. We have had no notification of any case of the Zika virus among our passengers, and we hope to remain this way. We did not receive any kind of cancellations as well.” As a precaution, Rio Life Tours is now advising all visitors on arrival in Brazil to apply repellent four times a day, wear protective clothing, and stay and sleep in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms.
Embratur, the Brazilian Tourism Board, advises that Brazilian health authorities have enlisted 309,000 health professionals and 220,000 armed forces agents to fan out and visit every single household by the end of February, in an attempt to combat this mosquito. The soldiers will be deployed in 356 municipalities, including all state capitals and the 115 cities considered epidemic by the Ministry of Health.
According to Health Minister Marcelo Castro, Brazil has developed and is distributing a rapid-diagnostic test for the three virus carried by the aedes aegypti mosquito—Zika, dengue, chikungunya—and by next week, labs in all but three of Brazil’s states will be able to test whether a person has had Zika or not.
Findings From the Caribbean
Wetschler applauds Trinidad and Tobago for having launched a multi-front attack on mosquitos before not a single case of Zika virus had even been detected. Alas, some other Caribbean countries, not to mention Florida, have not had the opportunity to be purely proactive.
On Feb. 3, the CTO (Caribbean Tourism Organization) and CHTA (The Caribbean Tourism Organization and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association) issued a statement addressing the Level 2 alert issued by the United States CDC. “Caribbean countries and hotels continue their proactive measures similar to those used to combat other mosquito-borne viruses.” These include national cleanup campaigns to eradicate breeding grounds, staff and visitor education, installing screens on windows and bed nets in open-air rooms, and other measures. (Typical of CTO’s detailed approach is this tip from the document: “We advise those using both sunscreen and insect repellent, to apply the sunscreen first, then the repellent.”)
Using a Q&A format, the document asks, “Should I cancel my Caribbean holiday?” and answers, “No. However, as always we advise you to travel sensibly and to take the necessary precautions to protect yourself against insect bites…in very much the same way you would…in any tropical country.” The statement also says, “The Caribbean remains open for business and safe for travel.”
Hotels and hotel groups have also reacted. Sandals Resorts International (SRI) issued a statement promising to “handle any individual concerns on a case-by-case basis, with guests’ peace of mind of paramount importance. All Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts continue to meet and exceed on-resort environmental standards—from increasing eradication methods to the removal of potential mosquito breeding grounds.”
End of story? Certainly not for travel agents, tour operators, and other parties. Lisa M. Harbaugh, travel specialist and owner at TravelDivaLisa.com, applauds airlines and other segments of the travel industry for the flexible policies they have announced, but she views them are “first-step measures. I’m sure that they will change as situations change.”
Because travelers have only recently become aware of Zika, she says, “I’ve only had a few inquiries. Most of those who have been concerned about Zika have been young women. They want more information…[and] recently one couple changed their mind about going to Belize for their honeymoon and switched to Europe. “My agency is being proactive by addressing issues in the planning process,” she says. “We advise clients of precautions to take against mosquitos.”
Sally Jane Smith, president of Travelsmiths, a storefront Signature agency, says her agents have been asking brides if they have anyone in the wedding party who’s pregnant,” and we called clients we knew were pregnant. When I didn’t hear back from someone on a Thursday, I called again on a Friday, and I advised they go in and talk to their doctors, because we’re not doctors;… We also spoke with a Mexican resort about clients who wanted to cancel almost two weeks ago, and the resort agreed to refund.”
Smith and her staff urge all clients, pregnant or not, to buy insurance, “and if they don’t, they have to sign a decline waiver.”
And from Denis M. Fastert, senior director of business operations for Expedia: “Classic Vacations, and our parent company Expedia, are continuously monitoring the CDC and WHO recommendations, and we will revise our policies as the circumstances warrant, but here’s the latest:
“We have seen some destination specific rebooks/cancellations related to Zika, but generally our pregnant clients and travel agents have taken an appropriately cautious and deliberate approach when selecting a destination, and bookings continue at a good pace.
“As always, clients with our travel insurance, they are covered under the ‘cancel for any reason’ provisions. For clients that don’t have travel insurance, we will do everything possible…to waive any cancelation fees, and refund as much as possible, or offer to rebook alternate dates/destinations.
Jack E. Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, notes that his company, too, has posted a travel alert on its agent portal referring to the CDC warning and providing a link for more information.” We have also shared this information with our sales teams so they can advise agents,” says Richards. “Pleasant Holidays is reviewing requests to change or cancel existing reservations on a case-by-case basis…
“We are also working with our travel partners to stay informed of the steps they are taking to protect travelers and…to accommodate those who wish to change their travel plans.”
Laurie Palumbo, chief operating officer of ID Travel Group, says, “We have had clients requesting additional information and alternative travel recommendations—in which our staff has been trained, and continually informed by the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization alerts, to assist appropriately. To date, we have had a few cancellations from pregnant clients. However, overall business remains strong to the Caribbean and Mexico.”