Zika 'could be catastrophic' for tour operators ahead of Rio Olympics

RIO DE JANEIRO -- If the Zika virus -- or fear of it -- keeps spreading, the head of a sports travel agency handling tour packages for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics fears for her business.

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"It could be catastrophic," Jerri Roush, director of operations of Cartan Tours, told The Associated Press. "It's uncharted territory."

Hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors are expected for the Olympics in August, and there are concerns that some may stay away, frightened off by the mosquito-borne virus that is being linked to birth defects.

There has been a "very small decrease" in foreign tourists, the Brazilian tourist board said this week, though world health authorities have no restrictions on travel to the country.

"Zika already begins to damage Brazil tourism," read a full-page headline this week in Rio's O Globo newspaper.

Many of Cartan's clients are in Zika-affected areas in Latin America. It is the authorized Olympic ticket reseller for 36 countries including Mexico and much of Central and South America and the Caribbean -- the heart of the outbreak.

Roush said there have been a few inquiries about cancellations, but Cartan managing director Jay Price declined to give specifics.

"We've had a lot of package buyers, some have called to question it," Roush said. "But I don't know that we've seen a drastic fall in our sales."

Roush said the Los Angeles-based agency expected to take between 1,500-2,000 visitors to the Olympics, providing hospitality packages that can include tickets, accommodations, ground transportation, and translators. She said flights were usually not included.

She said the company had a "no-cancellation" policy that was being reviewed.

Roush raised the question of liability if Zika harms the company's income. "Is Brazil going to refund us our money from this?" she asked.

Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes said on Friday, "We have to deal with (Zika), but there's a little overreaction at the moment."

IOC President Thomas Bach said on Friday, "There is no intention by (any) national Olympic committee to pull out from the Rio Olympic Games."

Another agency handling Olympic packages said if travellers are concerned, it's usually about security.

"I've never seen anything like this with a potential health crisis for a major event," said Anbritt Stengele, the president of Chicago-based Sports Traveler.

She said two clients had just delayed making their final bookings for packages of four and five people. Sports Traveler also has a no-refund policy.

Stengele said Olympic travellers were typically families -- unlike for Brazil's male-dominated 2014 World Cup -- who are sensitive to reports that visitors to Zika-infested areas might bring the virus home.

"Now it's becoming not just a Rio problem, but potentially a North American problem," she said.

She described Rio's ticket and lodging prices as "very expensive," which requires her company to make a large up-front investment.

She said four-star hotels were charging $800 to $1,500 per night, and at least one five-star in Barra da Tijuca -- near the Olympic Park -- was asking for $3,200 per night.

CoSport, which handles official Olympic ticket sales for the United States, Canada, Australia, Bulgaria, Britain, Sweden, Norway and Russia, did not answer email questions from AP. CoSport President Robert F. Long referred inquiries to the local Rio organizing committee, which has nothing to do with non-domestic ticket sales.

Its sister company Jet Set Sports, also located in Far Hills, New Jersey, declined to comment.

Airbnb, which is the official "alternative accommodation" sponsor for the Olympics, said pregnant women -- and women trying to become pregnant -- could get refunds on reservations. This also includes travelling family members.

Some airlines are giving refunds or letting pregnant women change their plans if they booked for areas dealing with Zika.

Leonardo Tristao, Airbnb country manager for Brazil, said they have 7,500 reservations for Rio during the Olympics. That was for a pool of 20,000 properties, which would accommodate about 80,000 people.

He said Brazilians topped the rental list, followed by Americans, British people, Australians and Argentines. Brazil headed the list because of the company's expanding presence in the country, Tristao said, and not because fewer foreigners than expected were coming.

Historically, the Olympics do attract fewer foreigners than expected, as they're put off by higher prices and crowds. Locals also have a history of leaving town during the two-week games.

Tristao said "people have contacted us to understand more about the virus" but he did not say if there were cancellations.

"So far, there is no travel ban to the region," Tristao said. "We need to be careful not to panic."



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