Zika threatens Caribbean tourism
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.