The travel industry is beginning to react as vacationers rethink their trips amid growing concern over the Zika virus, the mosquito-borne disease that experts say is possibly linked to microcephaly in babies. The spread of the virus in Brazil and Latin America has led the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to warn pregnant women and those planning to get pregnant against travel to affected areas, including popular Caribbean tourist destinations like Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands and Barbados as well as areas in Latin American countries like Mexico, Brazil and Panama.
As a result, domestic air carriers that have just finished adjusting passenger itineraries in the wake of a heavy winter storm in the Northeast are now doing so for sunnier destinations.
United Airlines said on Tuesday that customers who hold tickets to regions that the C.D.C. says are affected by the virus can postpone their trips or receive full refunds.
American Airlines said that pregnant women with tickets to Panama City, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula in Honduras, and San Salvador in El Salvador will receive a refund if they provide a doctor’s note stating that they are unable to travel because of their pregnancy.
JetBlue will allow customers who have concerns about traveling to Zika-impacted areas a refund or rebooking, a spokeswoman said.
Virgin America will let travellers who have tickets to fly to any of the airline’s Mexico destinations— Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos— get a refund or change their flight free of charge, a spokesman said.
And a spokesman for Delta said that travellers should call 800-221-1212 and speak with a representative.
The fears surrounding Zika had another effect on the airlines: it helped send shares of several major United States carriers down more than 3 percent Thursday on a day when the overall market rose. JetBlue shares were particularly hard hit, off 6 percent. ”We really see no measurable impact either to events bookings or customer refunds,” a JetBlue executive vice president, Martin J. St. George, told analysts, but “obviously, we’re going to watch it very closely.”
Cruise lines are allowing travellers some leeway as well. A spokeswoman for Princess Cruises said that pregnant women who are on itineraries visiting Zika-affected countries can cancel their cruises and get credit for future cruises instead; the cruise line currently has nine ships sailing on Caribbean and Mexico itineraries.
A spokesman for Royal Caribbean said that pregnant women who do not feel comfortable sailing to countries affected by the Zika virus can choose an alternate itinerary or get a credit for a future cruise that is valid for two years.
Norwegian is also making accommodations for pregnant women by allowing them to reschedule their cruise for a future date or change their itinerary to non-affected destinations, a spokeswoman said. Norwegian currently has 10 ships sailing in affected regions.
Hotels in the affected regions are largely not offering refunds. While some are taking precautionary measures to prevent its spread, they have not implemented any specific cancellation policies for guests who want to change their plans.
Hilton Worldwide, with 109 properties across its 13 brands in the affected areas, as well as Hyatt hotels and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, are considering waivers for cancellations on a case-by-case basis.
The seven Ritz-Carlton hotels in the Caribbean and Latin America, including two resorts in Puerto Rico and one in Cancún, are going a step further by educating employees on the virus and providing mosquito repellent for guests to use in areas like swimming pools and dining patios. “We understand that travelers are especially sensitive to this issue when they consider their visit to the region, especially in light of the recent C.D.C. warning,” said Catherine Leitner, a spokeswoman for the Ritz. “Our sales executives are in contact with our customers who express their concern, and we have received a small number of inquiries.”
Tour providers, meanwhile, especially from Brazil, where it is peak tourist season, report that they are fielding inquiries from concerned clients who have vacations planned in the country in the coming weeks.
Blue Parallel and Dehouche, both Rio de Janeiro-based custom trip companies, haven’t received any cancellation requests for coming trips because of the virus, they said, but clients with booked itineraries are asking questions about the disease. “Many of our clients have asked,” said Paul Irvine, the founder of Dehouche. “Most are unaware that any travel warnings are directed at pregnant women.”
In fact, despite the increasing swirl of media coverage about Zika, a few travel specialists say that many in the industry as well as the general public are unfamiliar with exactly what it is. Margie Hand, a Caribbean specialist at the Birmingham, Ala.-based company Andavo, said that her clients and colleagues are still learning about it. “Zika seems to be spreading, and I think that as that spread grows, I will certainly get more calls from worried clients, but right now, only one client has asked any questions about it,” she said.
So what can travellers do to protect themselves from taking a financial hit on a prepaid vacation that they no longer want to take because of Zika? The tourism industry recommends buying travel insurance.
Stan Sandberg, the co-founder of TravelInsurance.com, a trip insurance comparison site, said that most insurance plans are treating the virus as any other illness in the policy’s terms and conditions. That means that if travelers contract the virus while traveling, they would be covered for emergency care, medical evacuation and trip interruption benefits under most plans. “It’s still important to note that none of the travel insurance providers are considering the C.D.C. warning a reason to cancel a trip to an affected country,” he said.
For travelers to an affected country who want an option to cancel, Mr. Sandberg recommends a plan with a Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) option; RoamRight and Travel Insured International are two companies that offer such plans.