With concerns mounting about a further spread of the Zika mosquito virus in Puerto Rico, government and tourism officials there have taken a proactive stance to combat the health crisis through education, communication and eradication. Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers discussed the measures with Ingrid Rivera Rocafort, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism CoQ: How much is Zika impacting travel and tourism to Puerto Rico?
Ingrid Rivera Rocafort
A: Zika is not limited to Puerto Rico. Cases have been reported in more than 30 countries and in 40 states in the U.S. Here in Puerto Rico 500 cases have been reported since December, less than one-half of 1% of the population.
We've seen a moderate impact on convention travel since February when the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] began sharing information on Zika's possible effects on pregnant women. The impact has been felt primarily in the meeting planners' sector where we've lost between six and eight future events planned for two to three years from now. This amounts to about 23,000 room nights and approximately $15 million in revenue. Meeting planners are cautious, and some did not want to commit to a large event that far out given the current situation.
Q: What measures is Puerto Rico taking to combat Zika?
A: Our focus is ensuring a worry-free vacation through education about protection through insect repellents that contain DEET, eradication of breeding sites and communicating a balanced message to consumers and the industry. We publish updates from the CDC and the Puerto Rico Health Department on the official www.seepuertorico.com website. We soon will launch a microsite within that site that will carry videos, testimonials from both business and leisure travelers about recent trips and information on the steps that the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association has taken, so that hoteliers can reassure travelers about protection and prevention when they arrive.
Q: How aware are travel agents and travelers about the Zika crisis in Puerto Rico?
A: There's been so much news that most travelers are very aware of Zika. Our communications are part of that effort to be forthcoming, share information and answer concerns. From what our numbers show, there have been inquiries but very few cancellations. We do caution travelers about the possible effects of Zika on pregnant women and those who might become pregnant. We've added Zika webinars to our website as additional tools for agents and operators to answer clients' concerns and questions. We continue to promote the destination through sales calls, seminars, fam trips, special promotions and media tours. Zika is such an active subject. The CDC talks about it daily, and we have to talk about it every day. My job is to provide potential travelers with as much information as possible so they can make an informed decision. We have our challenges with Zika, but we are not dodging them.
Q: In addition to Zika, Puerto Rico has the current fiscal crisis to deal with. Has that affected tourism?
A: Our fiscal issues have been going on for years. There's been no apparent effect on tourism. We had a strong winter season, and travelers do not decide not to come here because of the government financial situation. We continue to promote travel despite Zika and the financial crisis as long as we communicate with travelers to mitigate their concerns.