Zika and the City: How Epidemics Impact Tourism, Sports, and Community

Image credit: Flickr Contributor Martin Pilat

Last Spring, the threat of Zika loomed large in areas like Miami, Texas, and Central and South America, generating widespread panic within the travel industry. As of March 2017, more than 5,000 cases of Zika had been reported in the U.S., about a fifth of which hailed from Florida. While many of these areas have since been declared “Zika-free,” their response to the epidemic yielded important lessons about how cities can prepare for a major health crisis.

Around the time of the outbreak, the NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab hosted a series of panels to discuss the economic and health-related impacts of Zika in Miami and around the world. The first panel featured a discussion between Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and my colleague Richard Florida about Miami’s organized efforts to combat Zika, while I convened a panel of NYU SPS academic experts to discuss the impact of public health crises on the tourism and sports industries. You can view the discussions here.

Battling the Bug

Miami’s battle with Zika provides a fitting case study for exploring the relationship between local government and epidemics. As the second most visited city in the U.S., Miami’s economic success depends heavily on its hospitality and tourism industries — both of which are deeply intertwined with the city’s healthcare sector. “If you want economic development through tourism, you cannot do it if you do not have adequate health services in the place you’re bringing tourists to,” says Kristin Lamoureux, the former Associate Dean of the NYU SPS Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism.

“I don’t want to be the mayor who had the opportunity to do the right thing, but instead did the popular thing.”

When the first instances of locally transmitted Zika infections were discovered in Miami in 2016, the region faced a difficult decision: to annihilate the epidemic by spraying an aerial insecticide or risk ending up like Puerto Rico, where Zika was endemic. Although the decision was controversial, Mayor Levine says that aerial inoculation was ultimately the right call. “I don’t want to be the mayor who had the opportunity to do the right thing, but instead did the popular thing,” he says.

Indeed, the Zika epidemic in Miami highlights the extent to which health and safety depend on the sound judgment of our elected officials. As Miami Beach’s efforts have made clear, policy occurs most often at the local level. “Even though Americans’ faith and confidence in their executive branch and Congress is at an all-time low, their faith and confidence in their local leaders is at near-record highs,” says Richard Florida.

Thanks to the diligence of local Miami officials, the state of Florida experienced a record-breaking tourism year in 2016, with a total of 85 million visitors and around 1.2 million people employed in Florida’s tourism industry from January to September.

A Significant Impact on Sports and Tourism

The 2016 Rio Olympics spotlighted the tension between the public health community and the world’s sports and tourism industries. Prior to the event, more than 150 doctors and professors wrote a petition to postpone the Olympics, hoping to prevent the spread of Zika. “An unnecessary risk is posed when 500,000 foreign tourists from all countries attend the Games, potentially acquire that strain, and return home to places where it can become endemic,” the petition read.

Image credit: Flickr Contributor Steve Corey

At the time, professor Arthur Caplan — the co-director of NYU SPS’s Sports and Society program and the director of medical ethics at NYU Lagone Medical Center — advocated for delaying the Olympics as well. But Caplan’s fellow co-director, Lee Igel, says there was ultimately an upside to hosting the games in Rio. In many cases, Igel finds, “sports [become] the entry point to address public health issues” by spreading worldwide awareness.

With this global platform, however, comes great responsibility. Moving forward, Mayor Levine argues that cities must continue to remain transparent with visitors and residents about the threat of disease. Lamoureux also believes that tourism markets should cater to demographics that may be less affected by a given health crisis. Rather than designing a Zika marketing campaign geared toward families of child-bearing age, for instance, cities like Miami might have focused on attracting older visitors, who were less likely to be concerned about the virus.

In addition to these marketing strategies, cities must view epidemics as an impetus to invest further in their public health sectors. “How can you grow if you don’t invest?” says Mayor Levine. “I can’t imagine a greater investment in the world [than public health].”

STEVEN PEDIGO is the Director of the NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab and a Clinical Assistant Professor for Economic Development at the NYU School of Professional Studies. He is also the Director of the Research and Advising for the Creative Class Group, an Associate Partner at Resonance Consultancy (Vancouver/NYC), and a Senior Advisor for Leland Consulting (Portland). Follow him on twitter @iamstevenpedigo.