The two biggest threats facing Caribbean tourism today are four-letter words: Cuba and Zika. Both unnerve officials throughout the region, for very different reasons. One has the potential to divert visitors away from traditional budget destinations like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, while the other could keep fearful tourists, especially pregnant women and their partners, from the region altogether.
In the wake of President Obama’s Mar. 21-22 visit to Havana — the first such trip by a sitting U.S. president since 1928 — Cuba is grabbing unprecedented headlines. It’s also attracting record crowds of American travelers discovering the Caribbean’s largest, and closest, travel destination for the first time in their lives.
But the fallout from Zika could prove to be far more damaging than a resurgent Cuba to overall Caribbean arrivals, which last year increased by a healthy 7 percent to 28.7 million visits — much higher than the 4-5 percent growth officials had originally predicted.
In early February, the World Health Organization declared the mosquito-borne virus a “public health emergency of international significance.” That followed a more specific warning by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urging pregnant women to avoid traveling to affected regions.
In the Caribbean, this warning now includes Aruba, Barbados, Bonaire, Curaçao, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, St. Vincent, Trinidad & Tobago and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Zika causes microcephaly, or babies born with extremely small heads and undeveloped brains, in about one of every 100 pregnant women who test positive for the virus. It has been detected in 31 countries and territories throughout the hemisphere, and is also associated with other serious birth defects and Guillain-Barré syndrome, an immune system disorder that sometimes leads to a fatal form of paralysis.
Costa Rica, with only a dozen or so confirmed cases of Zika, “has implemented aggressive actions to control mosquito populations, and we’re in our third week with zero new cases,” said Román Macaya, the country’s ambassador to the United States.
Macaya, speaking at a recent Washington panel on Zika organized by the Council of the Americas, noted that prior to the current outbreak, the country averaged 33 cases of microcephaly and 240 cases of Guillain-Barré annually.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released in mid-February, 41 percent of respondents who are aware of the Zika virus now say they’re less likely than before to visit the Caribbean or Latin America. Experts believe the virus is strongly linked to microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with brain damage and unusually small heads.
Since the first warnings, studies increasingly point to a possible link between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome, an extremely rare form of paralysis. And according to WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, “reports and investigations in several countries strongly suggest that sexual transmission of the virus is more common than previously assumed.”
As a consequence, Antigua-based LIAT and many other airlines including United, JetBlue and American are letting customers who had been booked on flights to Zika-plagued destinations change or cancel their travel plans without penalty. Both Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) have done likewise, while Royal Caribbean is handling passenger concerns on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, the cruise industry remains crucial to the economies of the Caribbean.
During the 2014-15 season, cruise tourism generated $3.16 billion in direct expenditures, more than 75,000 jobs and $976 million in employee wages among 35 destinations included in an October 2015 study by the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA).
The report, conducted by Business Research & Economic Advisors, is an update of similar studies commissioned by the FCCA in 2006, 2009 and 2012. Leading the pack, as in previous years, was St. Maarten, where an estimated 2.05 million passengers spent $422.9 million in the 2014-15 season; that translates into per-capita expenditures of $191.26 — higher than any other Caribbean destination.
Yet the region’s two most popular duty free cruise ports — St. Maarten and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands — both saw declines in 2015. Arrivals to St. Maarten fell 5 percent, from just over two million to 1.9 million, while St. Thomas received 1.88 million visitors, down 9.8 percent from the 2.08 million who came in 2014.
Curiously, the Caribbean’s five priciest destinations are all British or French colonies rather than independent nations, says a poll by TravelMag.com: St. Barts ($324 per night); Anguilla ($285); French-speaking St. Martin ($261); Providenciales, largest of the Turks & Caicos Islands ($247) and Grand Cayman, largest of the Caymans ($212).
The survey of 30 destinations is based on the average daily rate for their cheapest available double room during February 2016. Jamaica’s Ocho Rios ($137), San Juan, Puerto Rico ($131) and Havana, Cuba ($128) rank around the middle, while the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana — a favored mass-market destination — ranks 27th out of 30 ($87). Dead last is Santo Domingo, where room rates average only $43 per night.