Travel industry faces growing concern over Zika virus

Zika Virus Will Spread To Most Of The Americas
Zika Virus Will Spread To Most Of The Americas

(Reuters) - Airlines, hotels and cruise operators serving Latin America and the Caribbean are facing growing concern among travelers who had planned to visit countries potentially affected by Zika after the World Health Organization warned the virus is likely to spread to most of the Americas.

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The outbreak of the mosquito-borne virus, which has been linked to brain damage in thousands of babies in Brazil, comes as a record percentage of Americans plan a vacation in coming months and a near-record proportion of them look to travel abroad with a strong U.S. dollar making overseas destinations more affordable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (@CDCgov), which has used Twitter as a platform to discuss the virus, warned travelers to "consider postponing travel to areas w/ ongoingZika transmission."

Canada and Chile are the only countries in the Americas the virus is not expected to reach, the WHO said on Monday.

Officials attempt to eradicate Zika:

United Airlines said it was allowing customers who had reserved tickets for travel to Zika-impacted regions to postpone their trips or obtain refunds with no penalty.

Norwegian Cruise Lines and rival Carnival Corp said they would allow expectant mothers covered by the CDC advisories to reschedule cruises to a later date or switch to an itinerary outside the affected countries.

But some Twitter users lamented their ruined vacations and their inability to get a refund from tourism operators.

Stu Privett, an HR systems specialist for the Royal College of Nursing in London, tweeted about cancelling a trip to Barbados with his wife, who is in her first trimester. Privett said he was unable to get a refund from Virgin Holidays.

"They basically said it was our choice not to go on the holiday," Privett told Reuters. "Basically (it's) a case of 'we just lose all the money we've spent.'"

A Virgin Holidays spokesperson said the company would look into the claim.

Another Twitter user, Mitch Svor (@AzSvor), also asked American Airlines about a possible refund: "@AmericanAir My wife is pregnant and we are advised by doctor not to fly to areas with the Zika Virus. Will you be able to refund our fare?"

American Airlines replied, "We're currently refunding tickets for flights to SAL/SAP/TGU/PTY/GUA. If that's your destination, please DM for further details."

Many airlines and tourist authorities said they had seen minimal impact.

"There is no reason tourists can't walk around in bikinis," Cancun tourist association president Carlos Gosselin said.

Hotel chain Hilton Worldwide said in a statement it was working closely with local health authorities throughout the region to follow CDC prevention recommendations.

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Still, one U.S. travel agent said tourists with short-term travel plans to Latin America were rethinking them.

"It's the people who are going to travel in the next few weeks who are starting to ask more questions and rethink their plans," said Jennifer Michels, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents, in Alexandria, Virginia.

Data released Tuesday from the U.S. Conference Board as part of its monthly Consumer Confidence Index showed a record 54.4 percent of Americans plan a vacation in the next six months.

Some 11.2 percent said they plan to travel overseas, down slightly from the 11.5 percent in October, but still one of the highest readings in the survey's history dating back to 1978.

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