As concerns over the Zika virus mount with increasing reports about its spread and effects, travel agents are coming up with alternate plans for their clients, especially for so-called babymoon travelers, as pregnant women have been advised to postpone travel to countries where Zika transmission is ongoing.
As of last week, cases of the mosquito-borne virus had been reported in more than 20 countries in the Caribbean and South and Central America, with World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan saying it was “spreading explosively.”
“The level of alarm is extremely high,” Chan said from Geneva, where she called for an emergency committee to convene Feb. 1 to assess the worldwide threat level of the virus and prioritize research areas.
The threat of the Zika virus is greatest to pregnant women, as it is suspected to be linked with the incomplete brain development in babies known as microcephaly. It is also suspected to have caused some cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system, sometimes resulting in paralysis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a travel alert in place recommending that pregnant women postpone travel to countries where the Zika virus is known to be a problem.
As the prevalence of the virus increases, travel agents have been taking action, fielding calls from concerned clients and figuring out where to send them as an alternative to one of the affected countries.
Airlines are making it easier for travelers to make Zika-related changes: United, American, Delta and JetBlue are offering rebookings or refunds to customers scheduled to travel to areas where the virus is being transmitted.
Terry McCabe, national director of leisure at Altour, said last week she hadn’t had any cancellations so far, but that she was discussing the issue with her clients.
“Anyone who’s thinking of having a child, getting pregnant, I would tell them not to go,” she said about the affected countries.
She said it’s difficult to pick a place in the Caribbean for clients because she believes Zika will likely spread to the entire region in the near future.
Adding to the difficulties of where to send clients is time: Her typical Caribbean traveler spends from four to seven days in a destination, nixing tropical destinations farther from home. However, at the end of February and early March, the weather in Bermuda will be consistently warm, McCabe said, making it a contender.
Margie Hand of Andavo Travel said it all comes down to the client. Some would still be willing to go to a Caribbean country that isn’t on the CDC’s list, she said, but even in those instances she would advise them of the virus and proper safety precautions.
If a client has enough time and a large enough budget, Hand said she considered Hawaii a potential Caribbean substitute.
South Florida, including the Keys and Sanibel Island, are also possibilities, as is the California coast.
One of the biggest markets likely to be impacted by Zika is babymooners, something specialist Darcy Allen of Travel by Darcy is aware of.
But Allen said the babymoon market as a whole is not likely to take a hit; instead, couples will just travel to different, non-Zika-affected areas.
Allen said she might recommend islands that have so far not been affected by Zika, such as Aruba, Jamaica, St. Lucia or the Bahamas. Bermuda is also on her radar as a potential spot for East Coast clients, Hawaii for West Coast customers.
Mexico, Allen’s top babymoon destination, is likely to take a hit in that market, she said. She is steering clients away from there as well as from the Dominican Republic, another country where Zika virus has been transmitted and is Allen’s second most popular babymoon spot.
St. Lucia and Jamaica, which were not on the CDC’s list as of last week, round out her top babymoon destinations.
“I think it all depends on how long people have, because if they only have three or four nights, we want to look for something that’s closer to home,” she said. “That’s just kind of a babymoon rule of thumb anyway, so that they’re not on a plane for six or seven hours or bouncing around on small prop planes.”
Allen is one of several agents who said it was important to stay informed so to be able to arm clients with the information they need.
“I think it’s going to be one of those things,” she said. “There’s always a new virus. You hate to say that, but there’s always something that’s happening. I think it’s just making sure you read up about it, know that those things are out there. There are going to be safety concerns no matter where in the world you travel.”