Six months after the Zika virus started making headlines in the U.S., its effects are being felt by agents who cater to the “babymoon” and, in some cases, honeymoon travel markets.

While business as a whole remains solid, babymoon and honeymoon specialists reported a shift in the destinations to which pregnant travelers or those looking to become pregnant are heading. Instead of more traditional Caribbean babymoons, soon-to-be parents are choosing Zika-free vacation spots like Hawaii and Canada, among others.

“I am really only seeing [the destination shift] in honeymoon couples, couples that are expecting babies and couples that are trying to get pregnant,” said Margie Hand, an agent and Caribbean specialist with Andavo Travel.

Margie Hand
Margie Hand

The Zika virus is most dangerous for pregnant women. Many affected by the virus are asymptomatic, and those who exhibit symptoms tend to have mild fevers, rashes, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain or headaches, not unlike dengue and chikungunya.

But for pregnant women who become infected with Zika, the disease has been linked to microcephaly, a devastating birth defect in which a child is born with an undeveloped skull. It has also been linked to Guillaine-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system.

The virus is spread through mosquitoes and sexual transmission.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of last week there were no locally acquired mosquito-borne cases of Zika in the U.S. There were 755 travel-associated cases and one laboratory case reported. In total, 234 pregnant women in the U.S. had been diagnosed with Zika infections.

Zika is actively transmitted via mosquitos in dozens of countries in the Caribbean and South America as well as on some Pacific islands and Cape Verde, Africa. (For an updated list, visit CDC's website.)

With the virus’ prevalence in the Caribbean, agents have noticed a shift in pregnant travelers away from that area.

Lynn Ciccarelli
Lynn Ciccarelli

Lynn Ciccarelli, of Pittsburgh-based Bella Vacations, said many babymoon travelers who would have been interested in the Caribbean are instead heading north to destinations such as Canada, Montana and Niagara Falls or west to California. They are even going as far as the Maldives and Tahiti.

That shift is unusual, she said, considering “it’s so much cheaper and so much easier to go to the Caribbean.”

Hand is also seeing travelers heading to the coast in California, with Hawaii and the Florida Keys also popular destinations.

“My goal is to educate my clients the best that I can and be prepared to have alternate locations for them,” she said.

Hawaii is a popular alternative destination all around. Tara McCoy, with South Carolina-based Two Sisters Travel, said about half her business consists of honeymoon and babymoon travel, and she has sent nearly all her clients to Hawaii in lieu of the Caribbean.

“Most of our clients that we plan honeymoons for, or babymoons, are primarily looking for warm, tropical, Caribbean-type destinations, so that really kind of limits you with the areas with [active transmission of] Zika,” she said. “I mean, it’s pretty much the entire Caribbean, so we’ve been pushing people to Hawaii.”

While some Caribbean islands do not yet have any reported cases of active Zika transmission, since the virus was first discovered in South America and the Caribbean it has been steadily spreading through the area, and the CDC predicts the virus will continue to spread.

Some agents are still seeing interest from clients in countries where the virus is being transmitted, but they are in areas with fewer cases.

Katie Rahr Kapel
Katie Rahr Kapel

For Katie Rahr Kapel, owner of Fargo, N.D.-based Mode Travel Agency, Hawaii has been a popular Zika-free destination, but she said her clients have also been comfortable traveling to some areas of Mexico, particularly on the Pacific coast. Usually, the Caribbean side of Mexico is more popular, she said.

Darcy Allen of Travel by Darcy, a babymoon specialist based in New Hampshire, said many of her clients are taking three- to five-night trips to locations closer to home, such as weekend getaways to Canadian cities and islands, including Victoria Island. Alaska and Seattle are also popular.

“I’m seeing a lot more stateside babymoons and of shorter duration,” she said.

While babymooners have definitively switched their final destination, agents are having mixed experiences with honeymooners and destination weddings. Some said couples have changed their plans out of caution for both themselves and their wedding guests.

“Because there are still so many unknowns about the virus and the long-term effects, it is a big concern for a lot of couples,” Hand said. “We have had to shift our thinking and become a little more creative for the honeymoon and destination wedding market.”

Darcy Allen
Darcy Allen

Others, however, said their honeymoon business has been largely unaffected.

“Caribbean [and] Mexico for families, for honeymoons, for girlfriend getaways, for just general travel has stayed steady,” Allen said.

In fact, Stephanie Nye of Ohio-based Travel by Stephanie, said Mexico and Caribbean locations remain “extremely popular” with honeymooners.

While most agents said their marketing practices remain the same despite growing concern about Zika, Ciccarelli has taken a slightly different tactic.

She frequently posts destinations on her Facebook page and has shifted in recent months to featuring Zika-free destinations, such as spots in the continental U.S. and Hawaii.

Meanwhile, agents said they were continuing to encourage their clients to buy travel insurance, and the majority do purchase that protection for their trip. McCoy, for example, said about 75% of her clients purchase insurance, and between half and 75% of those choose cancel-for-any-reason policies.

With most insurers, cancel-for-any-reason policies are the only kind that enable a traveler to cancel a trip for fear of Zika. Some insurers have clauses that allow clients who become pregnant after purchasing a policy to cancel their trip.

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