The concerned posts from travel professionals in closed forums are multiplying. “Are your clients cancelling because of the Zika virus?” Some agents are not seeing any effect on bookings (so far) while others are seeing a swell in cancellations. If you don’t sell much in Mexico, South & Central America, or the Caribbean you may not be effected, or you may not be up on the news and how it’s effecting travel.
What is the Zika Virus?
This virus is not new. It was identified back in 1947 and has been around since then. During that time there have been a few outbreaks in Africa and Southeast Asia, but nothing that has caused a global freak-out. The virus arrived in Brazil last May, and for unknown reasons it quickly became an epidemic there, infecting over 1.5 million people. But it still didn’t raise concerns. Typically only one out of five infected actually gets ill, with mild symptoms, none of which are usually fatal. That all changed in October: babies were being born with birth defects, and doctors quickly traced it back to their mothers being infected with the Zika virus. Then the virus started showing up outside of Brazil. Governments have quickly reacted, advising pregnant women not to travel to infected areas. Some governments in Central America have gone so far as to recommend that women hold off on getting pregnant until 2018.
The Zika virus is transmitted by what is often called “the yellow fever mosquito.” This is the mosquito known for spreading dengue fever, chikungunya, and yellow fever. This particular breed of mosquito originated in Africa but is now found in tropical and subtropical areas around the world. According to The Economist magazine, “places where air-conditioning, screened windows and mosquito control are the norm are unlikely to see outbreaks flare up. Researchers in America and other countries have begun work on a vaccine. Unlike the one for Ebola, though, which had been in the pipeline for a decade when the epidemic in West Africa began, a Zika vaccine is ‘at ground zero’.” To date, it is believed that the virus has spread to at least 17 other countries, and that number is expected to continue to grow.
The Impact on Travel
We are definitely seeing the impacts on travel as a result. The CDC has issued a travel advisory telling pregnant women not to travel to effected countries. The challenge is that if you book them in a currently uninfected country, what happens if that country becomes infected later? And if it reaches the United States, even sticking to domestic destinations will become tricky for our clients.
Is Cruising Safe?
I’m not a doctor, nor am I with the CDC. I won’t go as far as declaring any form of travel “safe,” whether it’s the Zika virus we’re talking about, or getting mugged on the streets of any city. However, cruises have certain advantages over other forms of travel: they can change their itineraries. If they become concerned about any particular ports of call being hit hard by the Zika virus, the cruise lines may have the option of changing their itineraries and skipping questionable ports.
Travel professionals should continue advising their clients to consult the CDC website and their personal doctors. If they have concerns, especially if pregnancy is a concern, they should be asking their physician if cruising to an infected country is okay if they remain onboard the ship. Just like there are restrictions on donating blood based on where you travel to (i.e. Mexico), it all depends on where you go within the country. In the case of Mexico, often times you can still donate blood if you only traveled to tourist areas and not into the jungles (i.e. no Mayan ruin excursions). So clients that have concerns should be asking their doctors if it’s okay to cruise to a port, and if there’s a medical concern, would they be okay to stay onboard the ship?
Travel is a very litigious and sensitive industry. Travel professionals have been sued over all kinds of things out of their control, from airlines revoking seat assignments to a honeymoon being rained on. So no doubt, dispensing medical advice is a HUGE liability for travel professionals. When clients start asking you about the Zika virus, and eventually they will, do not dispense advice. You can refer them to the CDC website, and obviously their doctor. You can advise as to what countries are currently infected, but also cover yourself by pointing out that it can continue to spread to other countries. You should never tell them not to worry, and you should never talk them out of cancelling. If you do, and then something happens, any lawyer worth his salt is going to sue you for convincing them to go on the trip. There is no amount of commission in this world worth that liability.
Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations, she focuses on travel for 18 to 23-year-olds. Susan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (888) 221-1209.