Traveling to Zika-Affected Areas – What You Need to Know

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The CDC Zika virus travel alert for Florida is being called unprecedented. At the very least, it’s certainly unusual. But it is a strong indication of how fast the problem is spreading (or not) and how much geography it may be covering. Of course, it brings up the worst four-letter word that starts with F and always affects travel: Fear.

It’s not just the medical implications here, but the financial ones—and the behind-the-scenes lobbying and pressure from state tourism officials in Florida targeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to try to minimize the wording—and the frequency—of public health travel alerts about the Zika virus.

But the potential economic impact can’t be minimized for any heavily touristed area where there is an alert.

Travel and tourism is one of the largest industries in the world—in many cases it’s more than ten percent of the gross domestic product, or 1 out of 11 jobs. In 93 countries around the world, travel and tourism is singularly responsible for either making or breaking the economies.

Puerto Rico is a good example of how a Zika alert can negatively—and immediately—impact the economy.

Now it’s potentially Florida, where tourism is a $67 billion economy.

Currently, the Pan American Health Organization reports that 40 countries and territories in the Americas (aka Puerto Rico) have confirmed local mosquito-borne transmission of the Zika virus since January of last year.

But when an area is hit with a CDC alert, the economic fallout can be severe. That’s one of the reasons the Florida alert is making news.

The real economic concern with these alerts is not necessarily about general tourism, but the financial hit from the cancellation of business travel, large meetings and conventions, and sporting events. In Puerto Rico, major league baseball canceled a game, and Puerto Rico also saw a huge cancellation rate with meetings and conventions—and that’s a massive revenue loss that cannot be recouped.

In areas where the economy is so heavily based on tourism, the effects can be devastating, and that certainly applies to Florida. Within the state, tourism officials are lobbying hard (and quietly) to lift the alert soon, because if the alert continues a few more weeks, the cancellation numbers for planned trips in the high winter season could be devastating throughout the state.

Even though the current alert is confined to a relatively small area of Miami, tourists tend to paint with a rather broad brush. For example, during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Fort Lauderdale, on the Atlantic—nowhere near the area or specific body of water—took a reservations hit because many would-be visitors perceived the entire state was covered in oil.

So the worry among tourism officials is that this CDC alert for Miami could seriously hurt Orlando.

The good news—if there is any—is that the number of reported cases is still quite small and smart travelers are taking precautions and not canceling their trips.

Some things to keep in mind if you’re traveling to areas affected by the Zika Virus:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants whenever outdoors. One suggestion (although it won’t win any praise from the fashion community) is to pull your socks over your pant legs to prevent mosquitoes from going under them.
  • Use EPA-registered insect repellents that have been proven safe and effective. The CDC recommends DEET-based insect repellents for mosquitoes. If you’re going into any mosquito-affected area, you should always use a repellent with a DEET concentration of 20 percent or more. Concentrations above 50 percent last longer.
  • A lot of folks forget this, but if you’re using sunscreen, apply the sunscreen BEFORE applying the repellent.

Some of the original CDC advisories remain, and travelers should continue to pay attention:

  • Pregnant women and those attempting to become pregnant should consider postponing travel to Zika affected areas.
  • Male partners of women attempting to become pregnant should also consider postponing travel to Zika affected areas.