The state’s tourism-marketing arm Visit Florida, following Gov. Rick Scott and other officials, has maintained a message that Florida is safe and open for business.
But Mark Bonn, professor of services management at Florida State University’s Dedman School of Hospitality, said the state — which recently has also drawn negative international attention because of a mass shooting in Orlando and toxic algae blooms in estuaries fed by Lake Okeechobee — needs to get a handle on the Zika issue before the cooler-weather tourism season kicks in.
“We know from tourist behavioral research that the most important decision-making motive in a consumer’s mind about where they’re going to go for their vacation is safety and security,” said Bonn, who specializes in tourism marketing and research. “So if a consumer is at all unsure about a destination’s safety and security, they’re probably going to pass and probably go somewhere else.”
Bonn said most travelers to Florida aren’t planning to visit the area of Miami known as Wynwood, where state Department of Health officials believe people have been infected with Zika through mosquito bites. But the perception of the situation, similar to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, could be much wider that the actual area of impact.
“The further away the consumer was from the epicenter of the (BP) damage, the more fear they had that there was a factor of unsafeness in the consumptive factor of seafood,” said Bonn, who published a study on the impacts of the BP spill. “I guarantee you that the same hypothesis is true here. That the further away the consumer is, such as in the UK or Canada, the higher the fear is about traveling to Florida.”
British and Canadian health officials have issued advisories about travel to Florida.
The British release was for all of Florida, while the Public Health Agency of Canada advisory said pregnant women and those planning pregnancies should “avoid travel to the area in South Florida and countries with reported mosquito-borne Zika virus.”
The Canadian advisory, ranking the outbreak a Level 2 risk, also informed all travelers to “protect themselves from mosquito bites.”
Under the Canadian grading, a Level 3 risk would advise people to avoid non-essential travel into an area with an outbreak and Level 4 states that individuals should avoid all travel due to a high risk to the general public of infection.
Those advisories came as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory that pregnant women should not travel to the Wynwood area of Miami.
Zika, which emerged last year in South America, generally produces mild symptoms. However, it is particularly dangerous to pregnant women because it can lead to severe birth defects, including microcephaly, which leaves babies with abnormally small heads and developmental problems.
Health officials are investigating 15 cases of people infected with Zika in South Florida. No new locally transmitted cases were reported Wednesday. Numerous other cases have been diagnosed involving people who were infected while traveling outside the continental United States.
Scott has been holding roundtables across the state and on Wednesday held a midday call with Visit Florida and tourism leaders about Zika preparedness.
Regional tourism officials in South and Central Florida didn’t respond to requests for comments.
The governor’s office issued a release Wednesday that said the state Department of Health is providing free Zika testing to pregnant women in all county health departments.
On Tuesday, Scott and other state officials tried to assure the public that Florida remains safe.
Visit Florida President & CEO Will Seccombe on Tuesday called the outbreak “a hyper-local situation,” joining Scott in expressing confidence in the state’s effort to contain and eradicate Zika.
“The Florida Department of Health reports that the only locally transmitted cases to date are confined to a neighborhood in Miami,” Seccombe said in a statement. “For perspective, that’s a one-square-mile area in a state where a drive from end to end can cover more than 800 miles.”
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said the state needs to get a “clear message” that Florida is safe outside of the Miami neighborhood, but people need take “reasonable precautions.”
“I grilled out every night this weekend,” Putnam said Tuesday after a state Cabinet meeting. “The mosquitoes that are biting you at dusk are not the mosquitoes that are carrying Zika. And based upon what we know so far, the mosquitoes that are carrying Zika are pretty tightly contained in one area of South Florida.”
While state officials were calling Florida “safe,” CDC Director Tom Frieden appeared Tuesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” where he said eradication has been difficult in the affected area in Miami.
“It could be that the mosquitoes there are resistant to the insecticide being used,” he said.
He added that the neighborhood’s design had contributed to the difficulties.
“It’s mixed use. It has industrial, business and residential and that makes mosquito control very complex,” Frieden said.