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As the Zika virus has spread from Brazil to Latin America, the Caribbean, and now South Florida, alarm has been raised in the media about the very real danger the virus poses to women who are pregnant or may become pregnant.
Travel companies in Miami, however, say that the effect so far on tourism has been minimal, due to a number of factors.
As of Wednesday, 43 confirmed cases of non-travel related Zika infections have been reported in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Health.
The fact that the Zika outbreak had initially been contained to a small area of Miami, the arts-focused Wynwood neighborhood, has been the key factor in the lack of an effect on tourism the state overall, sources said. But on Friday, five locally transmitted cases were confirmed in Miami Beach, an area with much heavier tourist traffic.
Those infections prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to warn pregnant women not to travel to the two areas of active transmission, and to caution anyone who has visited the areas to use protection or abstain from sex with a pregnant partner. The agency also suggested that pregnant women and partners who are concerned about the virus “may want to consider postponing nonessential travel to all parts of Miami-Dade County.”
Reports of Zika cases in distant Pinellas County this week, located on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and Palm Beach County north of Miami shows the complication of dealing with a mosquito-borne illness.
“As more people travel in and out of Wynwood, or travel to the general area, then we run the risk of seeing novel cases outside of those areas,” said Katherine Harmon, director of health intelligence for risk management company iJET. “We’re really expecting the epidemiological curve to go up, and then it should flatten out as the response comes in.”
Harmon credits the CDC for effectively educating women who may be affected by the virus about the risks they face.
“Tourism really has not taken a huge hit from this, which is fortunate,” said Harmon. “There hasn’t been a lot of refunds or rebookings. Since the prevailing risk is to a specific population, most people don’t feel this is a significant risk to them… [We may eventually] see local outbreaks in Orlando or other tourist destinations, [but travelers] are at no risk right now because we haven’t had any documented cases there.”
The Numbers so Far
While the number of cases in Miami-Dade is still low, the spread to Miami Beach — in an area that includes popular South Beach — is generating a lot of headlines.
More than 77 percent of overnight visitors to Miami went to South Beach last year, according to research from the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. Just over 4 percent visited the Wynwood neighborhood during their trip.
Data on the Miami hotel market from STR show a slight decrease in performance year-over-year for early August, a number that pre-dates the CDC’s Friday warning.
For the week of Aug. 14, both average daily rates and occupancy were down 2.6 percent year-over-year in Miami Beach. Revenue per available room was down 5.2 percent.
“The first thing to point out is the occupancy decline in Miami isn’t driven by a decline in demand,” said Jan Freitag, STR’s senior vice president of lodging insights. “We have not seen yet any impact or fallout from Zika. It’s hard to interpret the data and occupancies because the new room count has increased so rapidly.”
Miami at large showed slightly stronger results year-over-year for the same week: occupancy was down 2.3 percent, average daily rates dropped 0.9 percent, and revenue per available room decreased 3.1 percent. According to Freitag, it’s “premature” to say the dip in hotel fundamentals is the result of Zika.
Expedia.com saw an 11 percent year-over-year increase in both cancellations and hotel bookings for Miami-Dade hotels between July 28 and Aug. 3, the time when the first transmissions in Wynwood were confirmed. More recent data was not yet available.
Scott Berman, industry leader at PricewaterhouseCooper’s hospitality and leisure group, said the local reaction — from politicians, hotel owners, management companies, and others — will be “critical” moving forward.
“The swagger of Miami Beach is being tested,” Berman wrote in a LinkedIn post Tuesday.
While there have been some declines in occupancy in late July and August, Berman wrote that it’s tough to say if Zika can take any blame because Miami has been battling other tourism headwinds this year.
New room supply in the destination increased seven percent, competition has been heating up from short-term rentals, and global factors like currency fluctuations have been taking a toll on hotels.
“It’s hard to imagine with these new, daunting national headlines how greater Miami reverses the current performance,” he wrote. “If there is any silver lining, it’s that the Zika warnings come during the slowest period of the calendar year.”
Berman, a longtime South Florida resident who is based in the company’s Miami office, said he expects more clarity on any potential impact within the next month as tourists have time to absorb information. September and October are traditionally the least busy months of the year for the destination, and it’s impossible to say what Zika news in August will mean for bookings in the busy months between December and March.
“There’s certainly a psychological effect, but you can’t measure that in any hard numbers right now,” Berman said.
What the Industry Is Seeing
Robert Finvarb, president and CEO of a real estate investment and development company that owns three hotels in Miami Beach and others in South Florida, said his properties haven’t seen “any substantial cancellations for the near or long term.” Booking patterns have not changed either, he said.
In fact, he said, business for the high tourist season is trending a little stronger than it was last year.
Just a few days after local Zika transmissions were confirmed in Miami Beach, Finvarb’s biggest headache seemed to be the treatment of the story itself.
“The sensationalism of this issue has been overplayed exponentially more than it should have,” he said.
Time For A Marketing Shift?
TravelClick, which provides revenue generation tools to hotels, brought up the Zika issue in Miami during a webinar about demand disruption Wednesday.
While there are no signs of mass cancellations, experts said adjusting to the current situation, and maybe shifting gears when it comes to marketing, will be key.
“How do I have to change my marketing strategy and maybe market to parts of the world that are already educated about Zika?” said John Hach, TravelClick’s senior industry analyst.
Right now, Hach said, “Miami is the poster child for looking at different source markets.”
Still, some hotels aren’t seeing a need for that yet.
Michell Diaz, who handles public relations for South Beach Group Hotels, said Zika hasn’t affected sales or strategies.
“I think we’re just going on about our business as usual,” she said — with one exception. Staffers at the company, which has 13 hotels in Miami Beach, are answering more questions about the virus.
“Just small inquiries like ‘Oh, so is Zika going on, are you fumigating your properties, are you getting rid of standing water?’” Diaz said. While she said the hotels have always done those things, they’re stepping up efforts with guest safety in mind.
Travel brands themselves have had very little to say about the outbreak. Outreach to major hotel brands in Miami garnered boilerplate responses linking to the CDC’s travel advisories.
Cruise lines said they haven’t seen many cancellations so far, which is surprising given how reliant they are on multigenerational travel.
“Given that Zika virus has been present for some time now in a number of areas the company cruises to, Carnival has been proactively communicating for many months with guests on the subject of Zika and tips for avoiding mosquito bites as well as working with those guests who are pregnant or attempting to become pregnant to modify travel plans,” said Roger Frizzell, chief communications officer for Carnival Corp. “With the recent developments in Miami, the company is continuing to monitor and will make adjustments to communications as needed. Additionally, we have been monitoring for any increase in inquiries or cancellations and have observed no uptick so far.”