Health Care

Miami Beach tourism industry staying afloat despite Zika — for now

Lincoln Road was still relatively busy on Wednesday, August 24, with plenty of families and young couples, despite the announcement on Friday that Miami Beach now has locally-transmitted cases of the Zika virus.
Lincoln Road was still relatively busy on Wednesday, August 24, with plenty of families and young couples, despite the announcement on Friday that Miami Beach now has locally-transmitted cases of the Zika virus. cherrera@miamiherald.com

On an overcast Wednesday afternoon on Lincoln Road, restaurants were about half full, families pushed their children in strollers, a woman sported a bikini and mesh cover-up and a handful of pregnant women walked the popular Miami Beach outdoor mall.

The scene offered few clues that Zika was now on South Beach — or that anyone was worried about it.

Nearly a week since Gov. Rick Scott announced that five cases of the mosquito-borne illness were locally acquired at the heart of Miami’s $24.4 billion tourism industry, Miami Beach has remained relatively insulated from the potentially negative affects of being defined as Zika zone two.

The first, Miami’s artsy Wynwood district, did feel the sting of Zika when it became the first area in the continental United States to record local cases of the virus in late July. So far, 43 local cases have been identified, 29 of them in Wynwood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised pregnant women to avoid travel to all of Miami-Dade County.

Zika in Wynwood meant temporarily closed restaurants, re-routed tours away from the wall murals and reports that business was down nearly 70 percent.

But Zika in Miami Beach — so far — has left few detectable changes.

I cannot see any impact of Zika on any of our tourism numbers.

William D. Talbert, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau

On Wednesday, a Miami-Dade mosquito control unit SUV rolled past the Miami Beach Convention Center, a reminder of the promise from local leaders and health officials, who say they are aggressively combating the virus and sending workers across the infected zones to spray for mosquitoes.

But over on Lincoln Road and Ocean Drive, most visitors seemed worry-free. Tourists largely ignored the CDC’s recommendation of long sleeves and long pants, opting for the standard Miami Beach uniform instead: shorts, tank tops and flip-flops.

Some travelers wore repellent, others forgot to spray.

“Today I forgot, but yesterday I put on,” said 22-year-old Emma Hart, from Liverpool in the United Kingdom. She’ll be OK, she said — “hopefully.”

Spris Pizza restaurant manager Bill Croft had some OFF! spray on hand for clients on Lincoln Road, but “we always have this regardless of Zika or not,” Croft said.

Whether a week with Zika has affected Miami’s tourism industry is difficult to tell, Croft said, particularly during a time when the tourism industry is being attacked by other factors, too. The news of Zika came during the last week in August, a time that’s typically very slow as kids go back to school and as the tourism industry enters September, also one of its slowest months.

“It’s really hard to pinpoint whether it’s hot weather, extremely hot weather, Zika, hurricanes, back-to-school,” Croft said. “It’s like the perfect storm of bad news.”

It’s like a boxer in a corner getting a couple of uppercuts — how much more can it take?

Scott Berman, Miami-based industry leader for hospitality and leisure at PwC.

Long before Zika, Miami’s tourism industry was battling a combination of factors that were driving down key industry markers such as occupancy, revenue per available room and room rate.

Year over year through seven months, the overall market in Greater Miami is relatively flat to decelerating,” said Scott Berman, Miami-based industry leader for hospitality and leisure at PwC. “The overall hotel environment has been facing some headwinds.”

Those headwinds: a strong U.S. dollar, a weak Latin American economy (top tourist markets for Miami), the growth of the short-term rental industry, a half-open Miami Beach Convention Center and a swell in the number of hotel rooms.

“It’s like a boxer in a corner getting a couple of uppercuts — how much more can it take?” Berman said.

As of this week, the number of hotel rooms in Miami had risen 4.4 percent over 2015, a large hike for a city that already has 53,000-plus hotel rooms. Over the last three weeks through Aug. 20 — a day after the Miami Beach Zika announcement — hotel room occupancy was down 2 percent on average and room rates were down an average of 2.83 percent, according to Smith Travel Report.

The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau credits those fluctuations to the increase in hotel rooms, not Zika, said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer, who points to another statistic: Last week, Miami sold 2 percent more hotel rooms than the same time last year.

43 Total number of locally-acquired cases in Florida, 34 in Miami-Dade County

Whether tourism numbers will be seriously impacted — with drops approaching 10 percent — is difficult to tell, experts said. But if that happens, then it will be clear Zika played a role, said tourism bureau president and CEO William D. Talbert.

As it stands, Talbert said the tourism bureau “cannot see any impact of Zika on any of our tourism numbers.”

But Miami Beach is unlikely to escape Zika unscathed.

“There is no question there is going to be impact — the question is how deep is that and how lasting is it,” Berman said. “The magnitude of that is yet to be fully realized.”

On Tuesday, top credit agency Standard & Poor’s said Zika will almost definitely affect Miami’s tourism industry, but it was still unclear by how much.

So far, a handful of small 100-person group meeting cancellations have been recorded, Talbert said, but not confined to Miami Beach.

The meeting business is crucial in Miami, particularly entering September when travel shifts from leisure to business. The choices meeting planners make now for conventions scheduled months — and sometimes years — early could have reverberating consequences down the road.

To quell that, the bureau is actively reaching out to the conventions booked later this year with additional, personalized information on Zika and Zika safety precautions. It’s also sending out a survey to hoteliers, tour companies and attractions this week to better take the pulse of Zika’s effect locally, Aedo said.

Miami is my favorite place in Florida ... but frankly the whole Zika thing definitely scares me away.

Alan Zaniewski, a Connecticut-based software developer

At the Betsy Hotel, located in the South Beach Zika zone that spans Eighth Street to 28th Street from Biscayne Bay to the ocean, managing director Jeff Lehman said guest inquiries about Zika are up this week, but no cancellations or a drop off in business have been recorded yet.

“We have a whole set of procedures that run the gamut from our exterminator coming once a week — he’s spraying, eliminating standing water, we also are providing free spray for guests,” Lehman said. “When the guests feel that we are aware, that we are talking about it,what the CDC is saying, what Gov. Scott is saying, they feel we have a handle on it.”

The Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association said it’s ramping up its education program, as well as regularly spraying, fogging and misting public areas, chlorinating and monitoring swimming pools, maintaining strict groundskeeping guidelines and providing Zika-related information through concierges. Insect repellent is free on check-in at most hotels.

The precautions have helped, but the very mention of Zika still elicits a higher degree of concern.

Alan Zaniewski, a Connecticut-based software developer, said he loves Miami and comes nearly every year — but not this year.

“I come to Florida to relax and escape the cold. Miami is my favorite place in Florida ... but frankly the whole Zika thing definitely scares me away,” Zaniewski said. “I really hope people don’t put their future children in harms way if they can help it, no matter the chances.”

If his wife were pregnant and they were coming to Miami, he’d definitely cancel, Zaniewski said.

Zika becomes even scarier when you don’t get a lot information, said Eva Pieri, who will be traveling to Miami from Milan, Italy, this week with her 12-year-old son, Cesare, and her partner.

Pieri said understanding the virus has been particularly difficult for her because there is a lot of confusion in Italy as to what the virus does and where in Miami it is being locally transmitted.

“Key West is out of danger? Coconut Grove?” she asked in an email. “What should we do during the day? Can we go to the beach?”

Pieri said the length of her stay in Miami Beach will be determined by how much danger she perceives.

“It depends on what I see around me. If I see babies with heavy clothes, maybe I change area [sic],” Pieri said. “Because it is my holiday and I want to not worry about it and because it is my son.”

She said she will likely go to Key West if she feels unsafe on South Beach.

And when she arrives in Miami, she said: “I think we have to run from the car to the apartment.”

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