Zika threat­ens Caribbean tourism

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT -

The Caribbean is one of the most touris­mde­pen­dent 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.

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