Swine flu boosts Caribbean tourism

The cruise Zenaiva Cervantes booked was to stop in sun-drenched beach cities on the Mexican Riviera. The cruise she took? That landed her in Seattle, where she pulled her arms tightly to her chest as she debarked on a damp, 50-degree morning.

"We wanted to relax in the warmth," the 61-year-old Tijuana, Mexico, resident said in Spanish Thursday. "If someone had told me I'd be in Seattle eight days ago, I wouldn't have believed them."

At the peak of the swine flu outbreak, major cruise operators Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. — desperate to avoid passenger illness and lost revenue — decided to reroute Mexico voyages until mid-June.

So even though fear has receded, once-sun-seeking passengers like Cervantes are finding themselves in San Francisco, Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia, in Canada. Cruise companies are compensating passengers for the switch with onboard credit plus vouchers for a future cruise. Passengers also had the choice to stay home and get a full refund, but most passengers are choosing to travel when they planned, the cruise lines said.

What they're losing in sunshine and tan lines, their new destinations are gaining in millions of dollars of business. In San Francisco, the 16 additional swine flu-related landings will boost the year's port traffic 31 percent and bring 49,000 new visitors, said Michael Nerney, San Francisco's maritime marketing manager. Each call could mean $1 million in sales for city businesses and together they'll produce $500,000 in revenue for the port.

"This is highly unusual — shocking, really — as the cruise lines set their sailing schedules 12 to 18 months in advance, and even minor changes are rare," Nerney said.

The great number of alternative ports in the Caribbean makes it far easier to swap stops there. Instead of Cozumel in Mexico, companies are opting for Ocho Rios or Montego Bay in Jamaica, Nassau or Freeport in the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands' St. Thomas, St. Maarten or Key West, Fla., or points across the Caymans and Turks and Caicos.

The Bahamas is happily awaiting diverted ships. Customs receives $15 for each passenger, and island clothing and jewelry shops, bars and cafes depend on tourist dollars, said tourism minister Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace said.

Analysts think the benefits may be fleeting for these ports because the outbreak hasn't been severe.

"I think it's a short-term bump that may already be dissipating," said Michael McCall, a hospitality research fellow and lecturer at Cornell University.

Jan Freitag, vice president of global development at Smith Travel Research, noted that, in addition to swine flu, Mexico travel has been affected by fear of heightened drug violence in border states. He sees business travel to Mexico remaining steady and swine flu having minimal impact on leisure traffic unless the virus worsens.

Hotel operators are seeing travelers postpone plans. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts said virtually all guests booked at two of their Mexico resorts in late April and early May will come a few months later instead. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Inc. expected the flu to cost it $4 million to $5 million in revenue but said it could recover much of it from guests rebooked at its U.S. or Caribbean resorts.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says only 10 percent of infected Americans picked up the virus in Mexico, not one-third as previously estimated. But it maintains its warning against nonessential travel to Mexico.

Michael Crye, vice president of technology and regulatory affairs for the Cruise Lines International Association, called that restriction damaging and unnecessary, because areas hit hardest by the flu's spread are inland and the flu season is almost over.

Crye pointed to lessons learned from several rounds of bad publicity after gastrointestinal illnesses like the "Norwalk" virus broke out and said new passenger screenings ensure ships don't help spread the H1N1 virus, which causes swine flu.

"We believe ... we've got a good story to tell, and that you're probably at less risk going ahead with your destination than you would be in virtually any other public place," Crye said.

Eric Brey, head of the Center for Resort and Hospitality Business at the University of Memphis, predicted tourists would have no problem returning quickly to Mexico.

"Outside of this summer, I don't see it being that big a deal," Brey said.

In Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, a place hit hard as tourism has fallen amid the recession, it is usually quiet this time of year. But taxies zipped abundantly by the docks last week.

"(The swine flu) is a good problem for us," said Edward Thomas, CEO of the West Indian Company Dock.

Despite the lack of sunshine, Cervantes, her husband and the thousands of other passengers who ended up in the Pacific Northwest with them enjoyed Seattle's blocks of boutiques and Pike Place Market, where vendors famously sling fish.

"We thought we'd be in our bikinis and bathing suits," said Philipe Tabet, a 53-year-old restaurateur from Albuquerque, N.M., traveling with his wife. "We just had to pack a little bit different, that's all. Unpack, and pack again."