Rio’s tourist industry could be shaken by new CDC warning to pregnant women

The threat that Zika will pose to tourists visiting Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics is unclear.
The threat that Zika will pose to tourists visiting Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics is unclear.
Image: AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo
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This post has been updated.

Pregnant women should consider avoiding the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil this August, according to a new warning by the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s Feb. 26 statement, its strongest yet, relates to risks posed by the Zika virus–an infection believed to be linked to serious birth defects.

Clearly Zika’s greatest threat is to public health. But the CDC’s warning may now put Brazil’s government in the unenviable position of determining whether they need to advise the country’s businesses to allow refunds for cancelled travel plans–and force Rio’s tourist industry to firm up policies for cancellations related to Zika.

The International Olympic Committee has estimated that close to half a million tourists will descend upon Rio for the Olympics. Since a trip to the Olympics is not exactly an impulse purchase, many people in the United States and elsewhere had already booked their tickets before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika to be an international public health emergency. Depending on how the Zika outbreak evolves, Brazil’s tourism industry could face a wave of cancellations in the run-up to the Olympics.

According to what we know so far, Zika appears to be primarily transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Researchers believe the infection is linked to microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with smaller heads and cognitive and physical disabilities.

The risks that Zika may pose to visitors in town for the games remain unclear. WHO head Margaret Chan has said she is confident that the government can make the games safe for athletes and tourists, although she acknowledges that the fight against the disease will be “a long journey.” Members of the scientific community differ in their assessments of the threat.

What is clear is that the Zika virus has a lot of people–particularly pregnant women or women who are considering becoming pregnant–feeling worried. Some companies in the tourist industry are taking preemptive option. Thus far, most major US airlines, including United Airlines, Delta, American Airlines, JetBlue and Spirit Airlines, have said that they will offer refunds or itinerary changes to some customers traveling to areas impacted by Zika. Cruise companies including Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line have also altered their policies in an effort to accommodate pregnant women.

Major hotels frequently offer liberal cancellation policies. When Quartz called many hotels based in Rio on the eve of the CDC’s announcement, the majority did not have a specific Zika-related policy in place. A representative of the Sheraton hotel closest to the Olympic event told Quartz that they plan to offer guests cancellations without any cost.

Meanwhile, some of Rio’s top hotels and hostels for foreign travelers say they do not yet have any cancellation policy geared to Zika.

“We’ve never had anyone try to cancel because of Zika,” said a representative of Santa Terê Hostel in the popular Santa Teresa neighborhood. “Not yet, at least.”

Several other hotels, including the Rio Porto Bay Hotel on Copacabana Beach, said that they might consider refunds, but “only if the government says that we should.” The famed Copacabana Palace declined to comment beyond saying that it was booked to capacity for the Olympics. Meanwhile, the smaller pousadas in the Rio area rarely offer refunds on bookings in the best of times. Their policies are likely to vary wildly.

A liberal refund policy would be a big leap for Brazil. Consumer return policies in the country are generally unavailable, or at least require people to jump through a number of hoops. Even getting store credit can require people to navigate a bureaucratic maze involving hours in line. Moreover, given that many tourists visiting Rio for the Olympics are unlikely to be return customers, many businesses may not be worried about generating ill will by refusing a refund.

Airbnb, which has exploded onto the overheated Rio real estate scene, appears to be quite willing to offer refunds. The service offers up a generous promise on their website for those wary of Zika: “Pregnant women and women who are trying to become pregnant, as well as family members traveling with them, can receive a full refund on their existing reservations to the affected region.” How this refund policy will impact Rio hosts who have planned on having guests, however, is unclear. (Airbnb did not respond to a request for comment.)

If current signs are any indication, Zika has the potential to impact Rio’s bottom line. Airlines say that they are already concerned that Zika is putting a damper on travel in the Americas. If the spread of the disease worsens in the months before the Olympics, the city could see a domino effect in cancellations that goes far beyond airlines and lodging industries. Local tours, car rentals and event reservations could all take a hit. And that could be a scary epidemic for the tourism industry indeed.