Miami is used to getting noticed for the fun, sexy side of life that brings tourists in droves — tantalizing beaches, thriving nightlife and good eats. On occasion, a particularly unusual or gruesome crime story makes headlines outside of the state.
But this week has been all about Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that landed smack in one of South Florida’s trendiest arts districts, Wynwood, north of downtown Miami. After health officials announced July 29 that the first local transmission of the virus in the continental United State likely happened here, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday warned pregnant women not to travel to the affected one-square-mile area in Wynwood.
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Public health officials in New York City, England and Germany issued similar advisories. The Canadian government laid out specifics in a detailed public message, down to the names of streets that form the zone’s boundaries. Canadians make up the second-largest group of tourists that travel to South Florida, behind Brazilians. The French have warned all travelers to avoid non-essential trips to Miami.
Some European travel companies have updated their cancellation policies so that pregnant women can get refunds for canceled trips to Miami. German companies TUI, DER Touristik and FTI offer to refund canceled trips to all of Florida, while British airline Thomas Cook offers cancellations only for trips to Miami-Dade.
Amid the health and travel advisories, a host of national and international media have conveyed an array of messages ranging from “Miami is still open for business” to “Beware: Zika is out to get you.”
$24 billion Value of Greater Miami’s tourism industry
Then there’s the just plain goofy. On Thursday afternoon, a Google search of “Miami” yielded this headline from the Daily Beast: “How Hipsters are spreading Zika in Miami.” Unless Miamians are missing something, the mosquitoes in question are not bearded, bespectacled, craft-beer guzzling millennials.
But seriously, some of the news has reinforced misconceptions that potential first-time visitors may have — that Miami is just one big sprawling city with a beach. And that this whole swath of land is under Zika watch.
“That was my impression,” said Sarah Strohl, a 23-year-old writer who lives in Denver and is planning a Labor Day weekend trip to South Beach. Neither she nor her four traveling companions have changed their travel plans. She isn’t pregnant and isn’t planning on it anytime soon, so she’s not too worried about Zika. She’s looking forward to partying — albeit with some insect repellent.
“We’ll just load up on some bug spray,” she said.
Despite the extra attention, it may be too early to tell if Zika will make a dent in the area’s $24 billion tourism industry — a crucial economic engine. Local hospitality chiefs are closely monitoring the number of canceled hotel and cruise reservations, and they say there hasn’t been a noticeable downturn.
But they’re keeping close tabs and ramping up efforts to correct any misconceptions about where the disease has been located and who it affects.
We’ll just load up on some bug spray.
Sarah Strohl, tourist coming to Miami
“We’re spending every day, almost full time, on this,” said William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re talking to the media because the message is sometimes ‘all of Florida or all of Miami should be worried.’ But no. It’s one square mile. There are 2,400 square miles in Miami-Dade County.”
Talbert reported some “isolated” cancellations as of Thursday. He emphasized that so far this summer, hotel occupancy has been at record highs, according to numbers kept by the bureau. For the week ending July 30, hotels were at 82 percent occupancy.
Similarly, Carnival Cruise Line has reported little impact on its reservations for cruises sailing out of PortMiami.
“With the recent developments in Miami, the company is continuing to monitor and will make adjustments to communications as needed,” said Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman. “We have been monitoring for any increase in inquiries or cancellations and have observed no uptick so far.”
Interest in Zika’s presence in Miami can be seen on a few forums on travel website TripAdvisor, where people have been asking questions about the virus and mosquitoes. Some commenters downplay the angst about Zika. A few say they may reconsider plans to visit or have already canceled hotel reservations.
For some foreign visitors who are already here, the Zika scare is a concern, but not enough to make them cut short their trips.
Jannienke Mulder of the Netherlands — which has not issued an advisory about Miami’s Zika cases — applied sunscreen and mosquito repellent before going to the Wynwood Walls on Wednesday. She said she’d heard about the local Zika news before arriving in Miami, but she and her children are staying in Miami Beach and putting on repellent no matter where they go.
“We heard it was especially in this area, but we’re taking care of it all the time,” she said.
Visitors from Brazil, the country with the most tourists coming to Miami, are already familiar with the threat of Zika. The current Zika outbreak began in Brazil in early 2015.
María Lamos, who is six months pregnant and visiting from Sao Paulo, was a little worried when she heard about Zika in Miami. But walking along Lincoln Road, she said she knows to be diligent with repellent from her experience back home. Still, she and her partner Sadi Lemos have loved Miami.
“We love this city. It’s very clean and safe,” she said. “We would definitely come back again.”
Miami Herald reporters Andre Fernandez and Chabeli Herrera contributed to this report.