Zika Threatens Florida’s $82 Billion Tourism Revenue

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Just a week ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its first-ever travel warning for a destination inside the United States. The warning was related to several Zika infections in the north Miami neighborhood of Wynwood, where 17 cases of the virus have so far been reported.

The state’s tourism agency, Visit Florida, reported earlier this year that 105 million tourists visited the state in 2015 and spent $82 billion. If the virus should spread beyond its currently known location, it could threaten some of the state’s largest tourist attractions, like DisneyWorld and Universal Orlando, along with beachfront cities along the east coast like Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie.

JetBlue airlines will allow refunds to travelers who are concerned about traveling to “Zika-impacted areas confirmed by the CDC.” Other airlines, including American, Delta, Southwest and Spirit have adopted guidelines for refunds, but it is not clear whether those apply to Florida as well as international destinations where the virus is found.

When the CDC issued its warning last week, director Tom Frieden said:

With the new information that there are active mosquitoes still in the area and additional Zika infections, we conclude that pregnant women should avoid this area – and make every effort to prevent mosquito bites if they live or work there. We apply the same criteria within and outside of the United States, and are working closely with the State of Florida and Miami health departments to provide preventive services, including mosquito control.

Florida governor Rick Scott requested that the CDC send an emergency response team to help the state’s health department respond to the threat.

The potential impact on the state’s massive tourism industry could be significant. Some portion of travelers will avoid the state altogether, while the state and federal governments have a thin line to walk: making the public aware of the dangers of the virus without scaring it away.

The Zika virus is particularly dangerous to pregnant women. The CDC travel guidance recommends that pregnant women not travel to the identified area and that pregnant women and their partners living in the area should follow steps to prevent mosquito bites and sexual transmission of the infection. Look here for the full list of CDC recommendations. The virus causes microcephaly, a birth defect that causes the baby’s head to be smaller than expected compared with other babies of the same sex and age.

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