This June, we crossed the fifteenth name off the list of Rainforest Inn reservations. Despite the nearly 100% success of our natural mosquito abatement program, the main culprit behind this unusually large number of cancellations is the fear of Zika and the idea that there must be a lot of mosquitoes at the Rainforest Inn since, after all, it is the El Yunque National Forest jungle. But that same jungle is also home to many small creatures that eat every mosquito they can find.
Travel to Puerto Rico has decreased significantly in the last few months due to the mosquito-borne “Zika virus epidemic.” This trend frustrates us and our peers in Puerto Rico’s tourism sector because it is based on rumors, speculation and hyperbole. We value the health and comfort of our guests, and we are in agreement with the majority of our sector that the Zika virus does not pose a significant threat to travelers.
It is important to be educated on the virus, to put it in perspective with other well-known mosquito-borne health threats for which travelers are accustomed to taking precautions—such as dengue fever and malaria—and to take comfort in the measures implemented by the tourism sector to combat Zika.
As for the relative danger of Zika, malaria proves to be a more serious threat to travelers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports upwards of 2,000 cases of malaria every year in the U.S., almost all in recent travelers, and the World Health Organization estimates that malaria caused 214 million clinical episodes and 438,000 deaths worldwide in 2015. The CDC reported 1,075 cases of Zika, including one death and one microcephaly case this year in Puerto Rico, and 1,732 total cases in U.S. states and territories.
At first Zika was considered a mild mosquito-borne illness—merely causing a typical headache, fever, rash and red eyes—but has recently caused a scare due to its link to microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome. The CDC projected that more than 20 percent of Puerto Rico's population could be infected with Zika in an outbreak expected to peak this summer, according to the Associated Press (AP) article “Puerto Rico's tourist industry feels economic sting of Zika” in May. The article also states that this alarming prediction has been criticized by some Puerto Rican officials, such as Puerto Rico’s Health Secretary Ana Rius who told the AP that those numbers are exaggerated and improbable. According to the Baltimore Sun article, “Feds are scaring visitors away from Puerto Rico,” Clarisa Jiménez, president and CEO of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association, said that the CDC is irresponsibly embellishing health information reports, which have developed into fear mongering that has spurred detrimental consequences for the Puerto Rican economy.
The Rainforest Inn was sucked into the downward spiral of the island’s tourism industry—previously one of the few sectors that stayed afloat in the otherwise drowning economy—by the “Zika epidemic.” Tourism once represented about seven percent of Puerto Rico's economy, but its recent decline due to the Zika scare will provide less help in alleviating Puerto Rico’s ten-year recession and growing public debt.
In an attempt to decrease the fear-mongered Zika scare created by desperate news media, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company has launched PuertoRicoNow.SeePuertoRico.com to provide potential travelers with current information about the virus on the island, such as the article “Perception vs. Reality: Setting the Record Straight on Zika In Puerto Rico.” Additionally, hotels and tourist destinations have been providing welcome packets with bug repellent and safety information as well as training staff on mosquito abatement.
While many hotels rely on chemical pesticides, the Rainforest Inn stands apart with our use of safe and sustainable biowarfare to fend off mosquitoes. Our program integrates a variety of natural predators of mosquitoes: our koi pond attracts dragonflies and houses fish that eat the mosquitoes that make it through the dragonfly barrier and attempt to lay eggs on the water. With the abundant spider population and the bat homes we constructed in the forest, in combination with cane toads, anoles, a variety of lizards, seven species of coquís and one native iguana on the property, the Rainforest Inn is a death trap for any mosquito that ventures near. Bats, amphibians and reptiles are abundant throughout El Yunque and provide their ecosystem services around many other tourist destinations in the jungle.
Our biowarfare program also coincides with our mission of environmental responsibility because avoiding the use of pesticides allows the natural rainforest wildlife to thrive and continue to protect us and our visitors.
Disproving the common misconception that a bed and breakfast enveloped in the jungle is a mosquito hotspot, our guests are regularly surprised by the almost non-existent mosquito population around the Rainforest Inn.
So, despite the escalating Zika scare, the Rainforest Inn is still the same safe paradise it has always been.
Bill & Renée