by Michael J. Shapiro | February 16, 2016
M&C recently caught up with Vinicius Lummertz, president of Embratur, the Brazilian Tourism Board, to discuss how the Zika virus scare is affecting group travel in Brazil.

How is the Zika outbreak affecting group travel thus far?

It is still early to assess the real impact to tourism; we are monitoring any information regarding cancelations -- or even the possibility of foreign visitors deciding to postpone or cancel their trips -- but so far we haven't seen a trend, only specific cases. According to the World Health Organization and the World Tourism Organization, there are no travel restrictions right now to countries affected by the Zika virus. In the case of pregnant women, the international agencies recommend postponing their travel plans as a preventive measure.

Are many events being postponed and/or relocated? 

No. We do not have any information on events being canceled and/or relocated. As of now, all scheduled events that we're aware of remain the same.

Are groups experiencing shortfalls in attendance?

We are working closely with travel agents, all over the world, to study and monitor the market in order to identify a pattern or trend in this regard. There are a few, isolated cases. For instance, we have noticed around eight cancellations from the U.S. and Canada. We do not see this as a trend in the United States, though. When it comes to our neighbors, there are a few cancelations and/or trips being postponed from Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia (mostly pregnant women and their partners). In Europe, we have identified five cancellations from the U.K. and three from Germany. There might be a few from Italy as well. But, as of now, we see this as an almost normal fluctuation in the market.

How are you preparing to handle potentially more significant effects in the near future? 

The Brazilian government has mobilized 19 federal institutions to work together all over the country. Almost 2 billion Reais (nearly 500 million U.S. dollars) will be invested in neutralizing the mosquito and promoting quick exams. Additionally, 300,000 health agents will work inside the communities directly, as will 220,000 soldiers who will visit three million homes to share messages of awareness; 356 Brazilian cities will be part of this initiative.

On our end, we'll share information with the market, operators and travel agents in order to understand how the tourists are reacting. We have released a statement about travel recommendations, and will continue to keep close contact with our most important markets to have a clear understanding of the consumers' current mindset. Most importantly, we will keep potential visitors informed about the real situation.

Are suppliers relaxing cancellation or attrition policies as a result of the virus? 

Regarding fees and taxes, we do see a movement towards relaxing cancellation/refund policies related to the Zika virus (for the most part, in the case of pregnant women). The government doesn't have an official position on this, as we don't get involved with how private companies conduct their businesses. Right now, the most important thing we can do is dispense information and increase awareness.