The Centers for Disease Control’s historic travel warning Monday has sent ripples of concern through the Miami tourism industry and through the state as a whole.
Local officials are confident they will contain the Zika virus from spreading, but they are far less confident about the hysteria that surrounds the outbreak and its impact on the $89 billion tourism juggernaut.
"Yes, I'm losing sleep," Santiago Corrada, the head of Hillsborough County's tourism agency, Visit Tampa Bay, told TampaBay.com.
The issue is that cities all across the state often face an identity crisis when travelers think of the area.
"Florida gets painted with a broad brush stroke," David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, Pinellas County's tourism marketing bureau, told TampaBay.com.
The Wynwood neighborhood in Miami, the epicenter for the cases of locally contracted Zika, is one of the art centers of the city and the state, a trendy neighborhood full of galleries that attracts upscale visitors more and more.
Industry analysts such as Miami-based hotel consultant Scott Brush say the impact both in Wynwood and statewide could build throughout the coming months.
“It’s probably going to have a measurable effect in part because the summer is more voluntary, last-minute tourism. It’s mostly leisure and is more easily postponed or changed than business travel,” Brush told the Miami Herald. “So yes, I think there will be a measurable effect and that measure may be very small, but you don’t know. This is very early on.”
Local and state officials are doing their best to reassure the traveling public, making it clear that the state is no stranger to fighting mosquitoes. Miami-Dade major Carlos Gimenez told reporters the city has successfully battled outbreaks of West Nile, dengue fever and chikungunya and this battle will be just as hard-fought.
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Orange County mayor Teresa Jacobs specifically spoke of the area’s theme parks and their extreme efforts in mosquito control.
“If you’re coming to Florida as a tourist, if you’re coming to the theme parks, then you’re coming to some of the safest places in the world because they have mosquito control down like no place else,” Jacobs said.
Officials from Disney World and Universal Orlando have yet to address the Miami Zika outbreak, but Orlando officials say that the theme parks have larger mosquito control operations inside their gates than the sizeable budgets of most local governments.
The Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau isn’t downplaying the threat, but officials are stressing that the outbreak is contained in a small radius.
“Pregnant women are encouraged to visit all of Miami-Dade County — except one square mile. That’s what the UK says, that’s what the CDC says,” said William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the tourism bureau.
Talbert told reporters that he knows the local officials are doing all they can to fight the physical threat and that he and other tourism officials are fighting equally hard to win the war of perception.
“This community has a long track record of dealing with these mosquitoes for years and years,” Talbert said. “[The situation] can change tomorrow, we know that, and we’ll stay engaged with everybody as this evolves.”
The state has welcomed a record number of visitors each year since 2011 and hopes to attract 115 million visitors this year. Very early estimates from industry analysts show little impact in bookings over the past week, but the fear is what officials have quietly acknowledged – that this strain of mosquito is resistant to pesticides that have previously contained outbreaks. The longer that uncertainty remains, the more the threat lingers into the fall, peak season winter bookings could be dramatically impacted.
But officials are confident in their efforts and stress that this is far from a surprise threat or an event that has caught officials off guard. Two weeks ago, hoteliers and tourism bureau officials held a meeting on Zika preparedness in Miami.
Airlines and cruise lines are watching closely to form their action plans in dealing with the Zika warnings.
JetBlue said on Monday that travelers to destination impacted by Zika, including Miami, can request a refund or change their plans to alternate destinations without penalty. Travel must have been booked on or before Aug. 1, 2016. Delta has had a similar policy in place, waiving fees for changes to itineraries for travel booked on or before March 1, 2016. United’s policy is similar, but covers travel booked on or before Feb. 29, 2016. American Airlines says pregnant women planning travel to Latin American or the Caribbean may request refunds if they provide medical confirmation of pregnancy.
Spirit Airlines is allowing passengers to make changes over Zika concerns and Southwest Airlines is following standard reservation change policy in regards to Zika – no change fee on refundable fares and non-refundable fares can be exchanged for future travel as long as the reservation is canceled 10 minutes prior to the flight.
Many cruise lines don’t just sail out of Miami, but have corporate offices in the city. Carnival Cruise Line officials said Wednesday that the cruise line will follow already-established guidelines concerning the localized threat in Miami.
“Given that Zika virus has been present for some time now in a number of areas the company cruises to, Carnival has been proactively communicating for many months with guests on the subject of Zika and tips for avoiding mosquito bites as well as working with those guests who are pregnant or attempting to become pregnant to modify travel plans,” said Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen. “With the recent developments in Miami, the company is continuing to monitor and will make adjustments to communications as needed.”