Brazil’s tourism industry is already suffering from the international alarm over the Zika virus outbreak that has infected 1.5 million people, with tour operators and hotel bookers experiencing an increase in the number of cancellations, particularly on the part of pregnant women who were planning to travel.
Brazilian newspaper O Globo reports that, while tour operators attempted to appear optimistic that the number of tourists canceling their trips will diminish as scientists begin to further understand the viral outbreak, they have received a number of “cancellation requests or travel postponements from foreign tourists, mostly pregnant women and caregivers.” Tourist agencies like Blumar tell the newspaper they have seen less than 1 percent of their bookings cancelled, most spurred on by the fact that a number of airlines have offered free cancellation of flights to pregnant women traveling to Zika areas.
“Aspects such as those related to security have a strong impact on the country’s image abroad. But dengue and zika raised it to a new level. We must act responsibly and quickly as it is a situation that burns the image of Brazil and its various destinations out there,” consultant Tricia Neves told O Globo, adding that many are concerned that scientists will discover that Zika is transmittable through other means than the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. So far, scientists have found that Zika can live in human saliva and urine, though they have not found proof that it is transmittable through those bodily fluids.
The Zika virus typically does not cause the carrier to experience any symptoms; only 20 percent of those who contract it do. Of these, a minority have been diagnosed with the rare Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes paralysis, severe muscle pain, and death.
Brazilian medical experts have found a link between Zika and the infant deformity microcephaly, which causes severe neurological problems many infants do not survive for more than a few days. This has triggered alarm surrounding pregnant women who are considering traveling to the affected areas of Latin America.
“There is a very important concern in all of America … there is a significant number of Argentine tourists going to viral circulation zones, like northern Brazil and Colombia,” Jorge Lemus, Argentina’s health minister, said this week, expressing a widespread concern that travelers may give the mosquito-borne virus an easy avenue through which to cross major bodies of water to other regions. That concern has trickled down to local populations. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that, of those who are aware of the Zika virus outbreak, 41 percent say they are less likely to travel to affected regions.
The World Bank estimates that Brazil could take a $64 billion hit in its tourism industry if the trend continues, which would be devastating to a nation already facing its worst recession of the past century. The Guardian notes that many are alarmed by the possibility that tourism to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro may be affected. So far, Brazil has reached 74 percent of the target income it is expecting from ticket sales, though the sale of tickets to Paralympian events has been slower than expected.