The owners of the Dover Beach Hotel on the Caribbean island of Barbados aren’t concerned that recent travel advisories placed on the region will actually hurt what is shaping up to be one of the busiest tourist seasons in recent years. Their rooms are fully booked and the potential threat of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has been linked to infant brain defects, seems like a distant threat.
“This is probably the busiest time in the past couple of years right now,” Adua Kinch, one of the Dover Beach Hotel’s owners, said Tuesday. “There’s always mosquitos around, but it’s never anything out of the ordinary. It’s not a big deal. It’s business as usual, really. We just take the necessary precautions.”
While hotel owners and managers in the Caribbean say that tourism has maintained a good pace in spite of recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel warnings about the growing Zika virus threat, experts note that the situation could change fast. Tourism is the biggest source of revenue for the region. Should the spread of the virus pick up pace — and the public start to become fearful — the impact on popular and sunny vacation destinations in the Caribbean could cast a gloom on business owners and the region's economy.
“At the end of the day, a mosquito can go everywhere, but the perception is everything,” Alan Fyall, a professor of tourism marketing at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, said. “But, it’s probably a little bit early to be that dramatic yet. For the most part, you’ve heard of this thing but it’s only in the most recent weeks that it’s coming to the fore.”
The first local transmission of the Zika virus in the Caribbean was reported in December after months of concern in Brazil, where the virus was first discovered in May. The disease has been linked to serious brain defects in children born to women infected with the virus, though the effect on nonpregnant people tends to be mild. Common symptoms of the disease can also include fever, rash and red eyes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Five Caribbean nations, including Barbados, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique and St. Martin have reported Zika transmissions and are under a level two CDC travel advisory, which encourages “enhanced precautions” while traveling.
It is not at all certain that the virus will continue to spread in the Caribbean or reach dangerous levels, but if it did that could be devastating. Tourism, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) noted Monday, has brought in record numbers of tourists lately. There were 26.3 million stay over tourists and another 24.5 million tourists who arrived via cruise ship in 2014. That is up 5.3 percent over 2013 and totals for 2015 were expected to follow that upward trend. Visitors spent $29.2 billion in 2014.
That cash flow is crucial for the relatively poor island nations that make up the Caribbean. Tourism made up a 36.2 percent share of Barbados' gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015, a 10.5 percent share in 2015 for Martinique, a 17.3 percent share in Haiti and a 14.9 percent share in 2015 for Guadeloupe. On the island of St. Martin, half of which is French and half of which is Dutch, 85 percent of the workforce is employed directly or indirectly by tourism, according to the Central Intelligence Agency.
But with that increased rate of travelers comes risk of disease transmission, CARPHA and experts note. There are several recent examples of epidemics being exacerbated by tourism, like the SARS virus in 2000, the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 and the Chikungunya virus in 2013. If Zika reaches those levels, that could spell big trouble for tourism.
“Right now it doesn’t seem to be a significant issue, but it could become one,” Sheryl Elliott, an associate professor of marketing and tourism studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said. “But I’m sure that the tourism officials are very concerned and they want to contain it in terms of public relations.”
Hotel owners and managers note that they’re taking extensive precautions to ensure that their guests are safe from the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries Zika. Will Oakley, the general manager of Cobblers Cove Hotel in Barbados, said that his resort mists itself with anti-mosquito spray every three weeks to make sure that the risk is diminished as much as possible. He recognizes there is a certain unavoidable danger, but that tourists shouldn't become overly excited.
“We have seen an unprecedented decline in mosquitos at Cobblers Cove. I have guests quite often commenting to me that we have so few mosquitos here on our property,” Oakley said.