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Caribbean hoteliers, tourism officials seek Zika antidote

630x355By BRIAN MAJOR From Travel Pulse

With the 2016 summer travel season waning, Caribbean tourism officials hope for some moderation in the Zika virus’ increasingly apparent toll on visitor arrivals. But with infection numbers continuing to grow in regional destinations, the illness’ shadow seems destined to cloud short-term tourism fortunes for several island nations.

This week the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism (CIDOT) issued a statement saying the office would be “proactive” in efforts to promote visits to the destination despite reports of two new cases of local Zika transmission this week. The cases follow an earlier Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Zika travel alert issued for the territory.

“The DoT will adjust our already robust marketing plans as needed to ensure the destination is top of mind and converts travel bookings from our target audience,” officials said in the statement.

CIDOT officials are concerned that Zika worries will further impact the country’s visitor arrivals following a relatively lackluster first half in 2016. The Cayman Islands hosted 210,490 air visitors in the first six months of this year, a 1.41 percent decline compared with 2015.

This year’s decline reverses trends that placed the Cayman Islands among the fastest-growing Caribbean destinations in recent years. Government officials have launched a multi-million dollar project to expand and rebuild Owen Roberts International Airport and a $150 million project to build a new cruise ship pier and terminal based in part on the country’s strong tourism growth this decade.

Yet while June featured 34,322 visitors, representing a 5.37 percent increase over the same month in 2015, officials say in the lagging first-half coincides with a period marked by “decline in tourism to the Caribbean and Latin American destinations as a result of general fears about the mosquito-transmitted virus and its possible impact on unborn babies.”

The U.S. government on Friday declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico due to the Zika epidemic. The declaration allows the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to award grants, access emergency funds and temporarily appoint personnel where needed. 

Earlier this month, the CDC issued Zika travel alerts for Antigua & Barbuda and for the Turks & Caicos. Saba, one of the smallest Caribbean nations, was the subject of a CDC Zika alert in late July. To date, the CDC has issued travel notices for 26 Caribbean nations.

The degree to which Zika — or more accurately travelers’ concerns regarding the illness — have impacted Caribbean arrivals is the subject of increasing debate among Caribbean tourism officials.

The manager of a major Martinique luxury resort this past week told TravelPulse the property’s bookings were “very strong” between January and April but slowed significantly afterward. He attributed the decline to extensive reporting on the Zika virus in the destination’s source markets.

Earlier this year travel research firm STR linked decreases among Caribbean hotels in the first four months of 2016 to the Zika virus concerns. “The overriding issue appears to be fear over the Zika virus,” said Steve Hennis, STR’s VP for consulting & analytics.

A February Reuters/Ipsos poll found 41 percent of Americans aware of the disease said they are less likely to take a vacation in the Caribbean or Latin America. However other Caribbean sources advised caution before attributing any visitor downturns solely to Zika worries.

“It’s difficult to measure (Zika impact) because there are other factors that come into play in trying to determine the industry’s performance,” said Frank Comito, CEO and general director of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, in a Hotel News interview. He said while some hoteliers have received cancellations that include earlier-booked weddings, others report no “significant impact” from travelers’ Zika fears.

Caribbean health and tourism officials have waged a persistent campaign to ameliorate the illness’ impact on its resident and visitor populations. In May the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) launched “Caribbean Mosquito Awareness Week,” a joint initiative in partnership with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

The program sought to raise awareness regarding initiatives to eliminate mosquito-breeding sites, prevent mosquito-borne diseases and implement “the most effective way” to combat the Zika virus: eliminating places where the mosquitoes can breed around homes, workplaces and the local community.”

At the same time, destination-based agencies have waged their own efforts to combat Zika. “Now more than ever it is important for residents and businesses to adhere to the prevention practices outlined by the Public Health Department and the Mosquito Research Control Unit,” the Cayman Islands statement adds.

“Everyone in the Cayman Islands has to do their part in helping to reduce the population of this mosquito and thus the spread of the Zika virus.”

PHOTO: Caribbean destination officials fear Zika concerns will impact arrivals throughout 2016, such as in Mead’s Bay, Anguilla. (photo by Brian Major)

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