In response to an outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus in much of Latin America, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel alert for 22 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, encouraging travellers to affected areas to take extra precautions to avoid exposure to the virus. This warning is unique among travel health alerts in that it recommends that women who are pregnant avoid travelling to regions where local transmission of the virus is taking place and that women who are planning to become pregnant review travel plans with their doctor before travelling.

The World Health Organization began recording Zika infections in Brazil in mid-2015, and cases in the Caribbean and Latin America are now expected to be in the thousands or even millions. In most cases, Zika causes either no symptoms at all or mild ones, including fatigue and minor aches, and the illness rarely requires hospitalisation. However, a strong increase in the occurrence of microcephaly, a birth defect, since the outbreak began, suggests there may be a link between the virus and the condition (the link has not been proven). There is also some speculation that Zika may have a link to Guillain-Barré syndrome. Many countries with Zika cases also have dengue and chikungunya, both of which are also spread by the same mosquito. Like Zika, chikungunya virus does not have a vaccine or specific treatment; Sanofi recently began trials for a dengue vaccine, but it is not yet commercially available.

The development and spread of the Zika virus is concerning from a public health perspective, and, at present, seems poised to have a mild to moderate impact on overall tourism flows to Central America, the Caribbean and South America. Unless the link between Zika and microcephaly is disproven, there will likely be a significant and sustained decline in trips to these regions by women who are pregnant or trying to conceive, but this demographic represents a relatively small subset of total travellers. Once more information is known – such as a definite answer regarding how long the virus stays in the body, a clearer understanding of the risk of human-to-human transmission, and any link to Guillain-Barré syndrome – fear among non-pregnant travellers should lessen. The US CDC recommendations to prevent Zika virus are the same as for dengue and chikungunya, namely to take precautions to prevent mosquito bites, so travellers who are already safeguarding themselves against these diseases will not need to take additional actions to protect against the Zika virus. Unlike these illnesses, there is currently much more uncertainty about several aspects of Zika compared to dengue and chikungunya. This uncertainty will further hinder tourism flows in the short term.

The CDC has issued travel advisories for most countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, but Brazil currently seems to be the country most affected by the virus from a tourism standpoint, with the greatest number of cases being recorded there. The virus has generated substantial negative headlines even as Brazil is preparing to host the 2016 Olympics, which is hoped to be a bright moment in what is otherwise looking to be a difficult year in light of economic and political difficulties. The country is reportedly taking a number of steps to decrease the prevalence of the mosquito that carries Zika, and some experts expect that the prevalence of the illness will decrease as Brazil’s summer ends. Mexico is another country that will see a greater impact on tourism, due to its proximity to the US and popularity with US travellers. Mexico in particular is a popular destination for “babymoon” tourism, the segment poised to show the sharpest decline in light of the apparent link between the virus and birth defects.

Experts are also predicting that the Zika virus will spread to large portions of the US during the spring and summer. An outbreak in the US would likely work to alleviate concerns to some extent that travelling to Latin American countries means risking exposure to the Zika virus, since would-be travellers would face exposure at home as well. While an outbreak in the US would constitute a problem for public health, it would likely have something of a mitigating effect on the negative impacts of the virus on tourism in Latin America in the first half of 2016, since the US is an important source of tourism expenditure for many affected destinations. Of all countries in North and South America, only Canada and Chile are expected to remain free of local transmission, since the carrier mosquito is not present in these countries.

Ultimately, however, for now uncertainty surrounding the virus remains high and as health experts work to better understand the Zika virus and questions such as the link to birth defects and the risk of human-to-human transmission are clarified, the impact and outlook on tourism and the economies of affected countries in Latin America and the Caribbean will also become more clear.

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