Zika Will Likely Hurt Tourism. That Might Not Be a Bad Thing.

Tamara J. Walker
April 7, 2016

Since the first case of the mosquito-borne Zika virus was reported in Brazil, in May 2015, the South American country has seen an unprecedented rise in cases of children being born with microcephaly. Zika has also begun to spread beyond Brazil’s borders to other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, resulting in what the World Health Organization calls a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). The Centers for Disease Control has warned pregnant women to delay travel to areas where they could contract Zika, and urged other travelers to strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites and unprotected sex with infected partners. The coverage of the disease has stoked fears among travelers, who experts predict will avoid travel to certain parts of Latin America and the Caribbean altogether.

According to the World Bank, countries and territories in the region that have been affected by Zika could lose a combined $63.9 billion in revenue from international tourism. This includes Brazil as well as other popular vacation destinations such as Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Because several of these areas rely on tourism to support their economies, the Zika virus threatens to become more than just a public health crisis.

But a decline in tourism to Latin America and the Caribbean might not be such a bad thing. It could help slow the spread of Zika and its attendant health complications, and possibly stem the tide of some of the other problems caused by tourism in the region.

Because news reports have focused so much attention on the danger the Zika virus poses to tourists, it is easy to forget that it was tourists who likely introduced Zika to Brazil in the first place. Researchers in Brazil believe that the current strain of Zika that is plaguing the region shares a genetic profile with the Zika virus found in French Polynesia. They suspect that the virus was spread during the 2014 World Cup, when soccer fans from around the world, including French Polynesia, descended on the country to watch their favorite teams go head-to-head. Yet regardless of how, exactly, it reached Brazil, Zika has had a devastating effect on the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Most of the women and children affected by the virus come from poor areas in the northeast. They live in densely populated areas where few residents can afford the kinds of protections that could keep mosquitos away, such as window screens, air conditioning, and even repellent.

Unfortunately, this would not be the first time poor women and children in Brazil were the collateral damage of their country’s tourism industry. Brazil’s reputation as a sun-drenched, beachy paradise has long helped to attract tourists, but the images used to lure them in, such as bikini-clad women with curvy figures, also fuels the sense that sex is easily on offer there.   As a result, Brazil is one of the world’s most popular destinations for sex tourists, and many of those visitors knowingly engage in sex with sex slaves and underage prostitutes.

Other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean face similar challenges. Cuba and the Dominican Republic have become centers of sex tourism, and the industries in both areas draw from poor, marginalized communities. As tourism increases overall, so too does prostitution, along with red-light districts, brothels, and strip clubs. This has particularly fraught implications for Cuba as it prepares for an influx of U.S. tourists now that relations between the two countries have softened. A decline in tourism can also mean a decline in the exploitation that represents the underbelly of the industry.

Of course, this is not a long term solution when considering the roles that poverty and unemployment play in fueling sex tourism, and how heavily Latin American and Caribbean economies tend to rely on tourism in general. But it is possible to imagine a future in which tourism is less crucial to the region’s economic survival.

Experts have long pointed out the uneven distribution of tourism’s benefits. Host countries have to shoulder the burden of building airports, roads, and the necessary infrastructure to accommodate tourists, while multinational hotel operators rake in the lion’s share of the money those visitors spend.[1] Further, for certain regions, tourist-sector employment can fluctuate according to the season, making it an unstable and unreliable source of income.[2] This has led to some calls for moving away from tourism-based development by placing a greater focus and resources on industrial or urban development. Although there have been no studies to indicate the feasibility and long-term possibilities of these alternate paths, it is clear that there are significant opportunity costs to tourism that can no longer be ignored.

Now would be a good to take stock of the negative implications of tourism as it currently exists in Latin America and the Caribbean, and reimagine the role it can play in the region.

While most talk of alternative tourism focuses on voluntourism, which has become immensely popular in the region, there are other models that, if widely adopted, could make even more of a lasting difference.

One such model is co-operative and community based. In Parana, Brazil, this model has allowed residents of the region’s rainforest and its surrounding areas to manage the local ecotourism industry, in which small inns, restaurants, and guides work together to provide services to visitors. In this way, locals directly benefit from tourists, and have a say in how visitors experience their community.

Another model comes from farther afield. The Kingdom of Bhutan imposes a tariff on its visitors. “In an effort to avoid its negative impacts on the culture and environment,” the Tourism Council of Bhutan requires all visitors—who must be official guests of the government or part of approved travel programs—pay for a package that costs between $200 to $250 per night, depending on the time of year. The package covers 3-star hotel accommodations (swankier lodging comes at a premium), meals, the cost of a local tour guide, and ground transfers. A portion of the tariff also goes to what the council refers to as a “Sustainable Tourism Royalty,” which helps to cover free education and healthcare in Bhutan, along with initiatives geared towards poverty alleviation and various infrastructure projects.

With this sort of cover charge, Bhutan is hardly a haven for backpackers or budget travelers. So the program comes at the cost of a more socioeconomically diverse group of travelers being able to visit the region. At the same time, however, it ensures that all citizens of Bhutan will benefit from its tourism industry.

What would Latin America and the Caribbean look like with widespread and expensive tourism taxes in place? To be sure, there would be a profound reduction in the number of visitors to those regions. But as we have seen in Brazil, large numbers of visitors concentrated in a single geographic area is a recipe for immunological disaster. The silver lining to this disaster is that it gives Brazil and its neighbors time to reconsider the future and tourism’s place in it.

Tamara J. Walker is an assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

[1] Malcolm Crick, “Representations of International Tourism in the Social Sciences: Sun, Sex, Sights, Savings, and Servility,” Annual Review of Anthropology 18 (1989): 307-344.

[2] Tamar Diana Wilson, “Introduction: The Impacts of Tourism in Latin America,” Latin American Perspectives 35, no. 3, The Impact of Tourism in Latin America (May 2008): 3-20.

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