Despite concerted efforts to raise awareness about the Zika virus, the mosquito-borne disease continues to have a negative impact on tourism in affected countries and territories, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Barbados, Mexico, Brazil, and Panama.
Many travelers began rethinking plans back in January, when the disease started making headlines. The situation intensified when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a public health emergency of international concern.
Puerto Rico, another territory impacted by the virus, is among the areas taking a proactive approach to quell travelers’ fears, but the numbers suggest that tourism is hurting regardless. In January, Puerto Rico experienced 11 percent growth, based on hotel room tax revenue, compared to 2015. But after WHO’s declaration of an emergency in February, the numbers began to drop: Puerto Rico’s February growth was down 3 percent over 2015, and March growth was down 5 percent over 2015.
Ingrid I. Rivera Rocafort, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC), says Puerto Rico is doing everything it can to protect its residents and visitors. “The PRTC has been proactive in three key areas—preparation, prevention, and protection,” Rocafort explains. “This includes employing strategies to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds, provide mosquito bite prevention messages, train health professionals, implement surveillance systems to better understand and manage the virus, and monitor any new research on preventive actions.”
Despite the drop in tourism, Rocafort says the PRTC remains confident that with robust information and an education campaign about Zika, tourism—Puerto Rico’s economic engine—will be resilient. Although there have been some future group cancellations over the next two years, the PRTC is banking on educated consumers.
“We have been working hard to educate tourists about the Zika virus on the island since day one,” Rocafort says. “PRTC has also created a hotel toolkit and worked in conjunction with the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association to provide hotels on the island with information for guests and staff alike, as well as an online educational microsite.”
The toolkit includes an in-room brochure with information about Zika and how to avoid mosquito bites while on the island, an infographic detailing proper insect repellent application, and training materials to educate all staff about the virus.
Rocafort believes that by setting the record straight and by putting Zika into perspective (less than one-half of 1 percent of the island’s population has been affected), informed travelers will follow CDC guidelines and continue to choose Puerto Rico for a worry-free vacation.
“By creating a microsite that houses information about the virus, the latest news about how Puerto Rico is combating the virus, and what hotels are doing to protect guests and visitors, PRTC hopes to give travelers the information they need to make informed decisions about traveling to Puerto Rico.”