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Puerto Rico Waits To See If Zika Scares Off Tourists


The Zika virus that has raised alarms through Central and South America is on the rise in Puerto Rico. The U.S. territory is bracing for the worst and has now declared a public health emergency. NPR's Greg Allen is in San Juan. He's been listening to reactions from people in the tourism industry.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Most visitors to Puerto Rico invariably end up here - Old San Juan. Cruise ships dock here daily. Tourists throng the plazas and narrow cobblestone streets, enjoying the Spanish colonial architecture, the cafes and the only-in-Puerto Rico attractions.

Megan Fitzgerald is from Boston and was visiting Puerto Rico. When we met her, she had a parrot on her head.

MEGAN FITZGERALD: We don't have this at home so we figured we'd stop and take some pictures.

ALLEN: Carlos de Jesus charges $5 for unlimited photos with his parrots and other tropical birds. He says business has been good and doesn't think tourists are paying much attention to Zika. At last count, there were 63 cases of Zika reported in Puerto Rico, including three pregnant women. Zika's a mosquito-borne disease that's possibly linked to microcephaly and other birth defects. Troy Gray spent the morning in Old San Juan with his wife, two sons and daughter. They're on a Carnival cruise ship and had heard about the Zika threat.

TROY GRAY: You know, we brought bug spray, but we didn't use it. It's - there's always a thousand deadly diseases flying around at any moment. So maybe we just get out and have some fun.

ALLEN: Only about a fifth of the people who contract Zika ever show symptoms, and usually the effects are mild - a fever, headache, joint pain. For most people, it's less threatening than dengue or chikungunya - other tropical diseases now found in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean. But it's the possible risk of birth defects that has made Zika so concerning, especially to young women like Megan Fitzgerald.

FITZGERALD: We're a little nervous. We knew we weren't having kids anytime soon though, so (laughter) we were fine with that.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm thinking we're in the clear.

FITZGERALD: But I actually know people that were supposed to come here for a wedding. They canceled the wedding due to that.

ALLEN: Tourism officials in Puerto Rico say they've already seen a number of cancellations of weddings and business conferences. Miguel Vega manages four hotels and three casinos and is chairman of the island's tourism association.

MIGUEL VEGA: When you have somebody coordinating a group, this could be a major blow for the group business here down in Puerto Rico. But I know the major hotels that have bigger groups have been getting a great deal of cancellations.

ALLEN: Public health officials say it's island residents, not tourists, who are most at risk from Zika. Visitors stay in air-conditioned hotels and have less exposure to the mosquitoes that carry the disease. Vega is happy Puerto Rico's government is taking Zika seriously but wonders at the decision to declare it a public health emergency.

VEGA: To me, I wouldn't have done it that way. And it took us by surprise because there were very few cases. When he made that announcement, Puerto Rico only had 22 cases. That's not an epidemic, you know?

ALLEN: Back at the cruise ship port in Old San Juan, passengers streamed back from an afternoon shopping and seeing the sights. Christine Rose and her family are from Manchester, England.

CHRISTINE ROSE: Well, I've got a daughter who's pregnant, so obviously I was concerned.

ALLEN: Did she come with you?

ROSE: She has come with us. She's been off the boat today, and she's sprayed up with spray and taking all the precautions.

ALLEN: Rose says she booked the cruise a year ago. If she was booking it today, though, she says she wouldn't come to Puerto Rico or the Caribbean. And she thinks she's not alone.

ROSE: Back in the U.K. I think that - I don't think many people will. I don't think many will book cruises or - I think people will kind of go to different places.

ALLEN: Puerto Rico's hotel and tourism industry, like the rest of the island's economy, is still struggling to emerge from the recession. Now Zika is a new blow - one that may scare many visitors away. Greg Allen, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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