Zika virus threatens already shaky tourism statistics

Costa Rican officials always brag about the number of foreign tourists. A detailed report covering 2015 is due out this month, and it most likely will show a significant increase over the 2014 total of 2.4 million.

Many tourism operators are trying hard to find out where these tourists are because the industry is in crisis.

The Instituto Costarricense de Turismo let the cat out of the bag on its institutional Web site. The institute has been using statistics from the immigration agency, but fully 13 percent of those counted as tourists are coming to the country for other reasons.

Just 75 percent of those listed as tourists are coming to Costa Rica for vacations and pleasure, the institute said, adding that 13 percent are coming for business of professional reasons.

The Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería has a number of categories for various types of visitors, but they mostly are not used.

The tourism institute never has clarified that perhaps a half million so-called tourists come from Nicaragua.

Also unknown are the number of repeat visitors who enter the country multiple times each year.  Some expats are called perpetual tourists because they live here but leave the  country every 90 days to renew their tourism visa.

Efforts to obtain these statistics by a reporter have been unsuccessful.

Only time will tell how the tourism institute counts the 8,000 Cuban migrants who became stranded in the country.

Tourism numbers now are more critical than ever because the country is trying to overcome fears worldwide of the zika virus.

Central government officials said Monday that there was no active circulation of the virus in the country. The press release was designed to counter negative international publicity that has resulted in reservation cancellations.

The Ministerio de Salud y el Instituto Costarricense de Turismo also called on tourism operators to reinforce their efforts at cleaning out places where the mosquito vectors may breed.

The statement quoted Daniel Salas Peraza of the health ministry noting that the high tourism season coincided with the arrival of the dry season in Costa Rica. And he urged residents to prepare for the rainy season by eliminating mosquito breeding sites.

The Ministerio de Educación Pública, the  Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social and even the Fuerza Pública have been put to work removing possible breeding spots.

However, despite the press statements, there does not seem to be any organized effort to carry this message to foreign tourists.

Meanwhile, the international media are filled with reminders, and the reports seldom differentiate between Costa Rica and the rest of Latin America.

There was another reminder of the virus in Washington Monday. President Barack Obama is asking the U.S. Congress for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to

help fight the zika virus in the United States and other countries.

U.S. health officials say the funding is critical for developing a vaccine, more efficient diagnostic testing, and for research into suspected links between zika and microcephaly, a condition in newborns that results in deformed skulls and underdeveloped brains.

In a statement Monday, the White House says the funding also would support essential strategies to combat the virus, such as rapidly expanding mosquito control programs and providing health care services and support for low-income pregnant women.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 50 laboratory confirmed cases among U.S. travelers in the past two months. One was a Texas tourist who visited Nosara in December.

The zika virus is contracted through bites of a variety of the Aedes mosquito, and researchers have found some preliminary evidence it may then be transmitted through sexual contact.  It causes no symptoms in 80 percent of those infected. However, a massive spread of the virus in Latin America and the Caribbean, coupled with a huge spike in microcephaly births, has led to widespread scientific speculation that the virus may trigger fetal malformations that leave infants devastatingly disfigured and impaired and their parents bereft of hope.

“We must work aggressively to investigate these outbreaks, and mitigate to the best extent possible, the spread of the virus,” the White House said in its request.

Anne Schuchat, deputy director of the Centers, says women who traveled to zika infected territories should be tested for the virus even if they don’t have symptoms.

This is one of the many locations where mosquitoes can breed in trash that collects water.

This is one of the many locations where mosquitoes can breed in trash that collects water.

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