Last updated: 11:36 AM ET, Fri June 24 2016

Zika Fears Still Affecting Travel to Latin America

Impacting Travel | David Cogswell | June 24, 2016

Zika Fears Still Affecting Travel to Latin America

PHOTO: Bookings to Brazil have been slowed by fear of Zika. (photo by David Cogswell)

The initial hysteria over Zika has subsided, but the negative effect lingers, dampening sales for tour operators on trips to Latin America.

Information about the virus and the extent of the danger has been circulated, reducing the fears. Although Zika is extremely dangerous for expectant mothers, for others it is not a major concern.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito. People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika. For this reason, many people might not realize they have been infected.”

READ MORE: 5 Places to Vacation Zika-Free This Summer

Those who are infected once seem to be immune to future infections. But for expectant mothers, that one infection with Zika could be a horror.

According to the CDC, “Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, as well as other severe fetal brain defects.”

A Lingering Slowdown

In spite of the narrow range of people in the at-risk category and the narrow geographic range of where the disease has occurred, the fear of the virus seemed to knock the wind out of sales for the whole region.

“The Zika effect on South America was surprising,” said Steve Born, vice president of marketing for the Globus family of brands. “Originally we were hearing it was primarily affecting Caribbean all-inclusives and cruises. But it turned out to be anything south of border.”

Although the initial shock of Zika wore off, it appears that the damage was done and the momentum for booking was broken.

“For an international traveler who can probably decide to do that trip of a lifetime at any point, with the news of Zika a lot of them said, ‘You know this may not be the year to do that.’ South America really softened with the Zika news,” said Born. “And that’s lingered quite some time. We’re still hearing some news about cases and issues. So it keeps being relevant in the news, which I think is continuing to soften anything south of the border.”

The hesitation to travel extends far beyond the at-risk group, and affects a much broader area than the area where Zika actually has occurred.  

“While the effects of Zika have been narrowed by the Center for Disease Control to expectant mothers traveling to specific countries, we have seen a somewhat broader impact to our business in regions where the virus has been identified,” said Born. “Since January, we’ve seen a definite slowing of our sales to South America. We’re hopeful that progress continues to be made on limiting the spread of the virus, as well as minimizing symptoms, and that the upcoming Olympics help show the progress.”

But the Olympics, while it may help the local hotels and tourism businesses of Rio de Janeiro, is not particularly helpful in generating business for most tour operators. In fact, for them the net effect on bookings may actually be negative.

A Confluence of Factors

Though it’s not possible to clearly separate the various factors affecting the Latin American travel market, Zika has certainly had a dampening effect.

“Given the number of issues out there for travelers at the moment — TSA delays, terrorism and Egyptair and the presidential election — it’s hard to attribute impact from one of these issues,” said Bob Drumm, president of Alexander + Roberts. “The government chaos and oncoming Olympic price increases are also part of the mix.”

Fortunately for Alexander + Roberts, most of its clientele is beyond the age of the at-risk group and they are informed enough to know it. “We’re not seeing a major impact from Zika in particular, since our audience is 55 and above,” said Drumm.

“Zika is clearly affecting business negatively but it’s difficult to attach real numbers that directly result from fears of the Zika virus,” said Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti Destinations. “We decided not to sell the Olympics before Zika became an epidemic, so that alone negatively affected Brazil sales for that time period. It doesn't help that Brazil’s political situation is unstable and almost all the press about the Olympics is negative for Rio.”

Although Colombia has been linked with Zika, Avanti’s bookings to the country this year are up 400 percent.

Toronto-based Goway Travel is seeing a moderate effect of Zika on bookings. But it does not match the map of where Zika exists.

“We have seen a few travelers cancel trips to the Latin America region, and rebook to non-Zika destinations,” said Ben Stasiuk, general manager of Central and South America and Polar Regions for Goway. “We have experienced limited to no cancellations to other Zika-affected areas, such as the South Pacific, tropical islands, and so forth. Many of our travelers are 45-50-plus, are informed and educated and not of child bearing age. We’ve had isolated incidents of clients who are concerned about Zika in destinations that have not been effected, such as Chile and the Galapagos, which is alarming.”

READ MORE: Zika Virus and Travel Insurance: What You Need to Know

The cancellations of Brazil trips for Goway are limited to the tropical areas. “The top destinations of Rio de Janeiro and Iguazu Falls seem to be doing well still in terms of travel plans,” said Stasiuk. “And they are indeed a bit further south away from the tropical destinations where Zika is more present.”


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