The Sunshine Economy in the Age of Zika

Oct 31, 2016

An adult aedes aegypti mosquito measures about six millimeters. That’s roughly a quarter of an inch. Yet for weeks this summer, it looked to threaten a $26 billion a year industry that underpins the South Florida economy -- tourism.

The bug remains a big public health worry -- so much so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends that pregnant women stay away from all of Miami-Dade County -- but it in its early months, hasn’t hurt tourism.

Brutal

But try telling that to Donald Goldberg, manager of the Wynwood Diner.

"Brutal. Completely brutal," is how he described business in the days after the July 29 Zika zone declaration by the Florida Department of Public Health. "One day it just dried up."

Goldberg estimates his business dropped almost 50 percent during the weeks of the Zika zone in Wynwood. That designation was lifted in mid-September. Since then, diners have returned, though he says his crowds remain about 10 to 15 percent below where they were before Zika.

Virtually Sold Out

Marseilles Hotel (in background) owner Lloyd Mandell says business since the Zika zone was declared has been "better than I would have expected it to be."
Credit Tom Hudson

Lloyd Mandell learned about Miami Beach's first Zika zone declaration via text message. The general manager of his Marseilles Hotel and Dorchester Miami Beach Hotel and Suites had sent him a note on the morning of August 19 saying how great business was. Then a few hours later followed up with a message that active transmission of the virus had been discovered in South Beach and his hotels were in the zone.

In the six weeks since, business is "better than I would have expected it to," he said.  Hotel manager Mark Gardner says the hotels are "virtually sold out" for winter.

Along Ft. Lauderdale beach, Eduardo Fernandez says business is brisk at the hotel he managers -- the Sonesta Ft. Lauderdale Beach Resort. 

"All of us in the industry are keeping a close eye on this," he said. "But from an individual traveler standpoint, we've had very few if any questions or concerns raised."

In Broward County, both hotel occupancy and the average hotel room rate was up in September, compared to the same month last year, despite the emergence of Zika in South Florida. Two-thirds of available hotel rooms had guests in them last month in Broward County according to the Greater Ft. Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. And guests were spending an average of more than $105 per night.

Sonesta Ft. Lauderdale Beach Resort General Manager Eduardo Fernandez says hardly any guests have asked about Zika.
Credit Tom Hudson

In Miami Beach, August saw a small slow down from a year ago, though it’s impossible to say what role Zika may have played. It wasn’t until August 19 when the Department of Health announced the first Zika zone for the beach, that was later expanded to include Mid Beach and North Beach.

In August, a little less than every three out of four Miami Beach hotel rooms were filled. The average room rate was $186, down about $10 from a year earlier, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But there are indicators that the threat of Zika will not hurt the South Florida tourism industry permanently. For the year ending September 30, 14.8 million hotel room nights in the county were sold, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. That’s up three percent at a time when Brazil  -- a key source of international visitors -- is in recession and a strong U.S. Dollar has made Miami more expensive for all international tourists.