HAMILTON, Bermuda — This island has always been a popular port for cruise ships depositing families and baby boomers in the pink sand of Horseshoe Bay beach. But there's a new, rapidly growing demographic arriving in Bermuda — young couples hoping to avoid Zika.
Over the past nine months, Bermuda has seen double digit growth in the number of visitors under the age of 45. Tourism officials on the island are hesitant to attribute the increase entirely to those seeking romantic, Zika-free beaches, but the rise comes at a time when Caribbean islands are getting hit by cancellations and vacationers are looking for alternate destinations that are free of the mosquito-spread disease.
"The island does not have the mosquito that carries the virus," said Victoria Isley, chief sales and marketing officer for the Bermuda Tourism Authority. "This has made Bermuda a safe option for young mothers or young mothers-to-be and couples."
Zika is primarily carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The virus causes flulike symptoms in most people, but is especially devastating for pregnant women because it can cause the birth defect microcephaly and other neurological deficits. It can also cause miscarriages and stillborn births. The CDC advises that women who are pregnant, or women considering children in the near future, avoid nonessential travel to areas where Zika has been reported.
"Are we taking out billboards that say 'Bermuda is Zika-free'? No, not at all," Isley said. "We hope our appeal as a destination is more than that."
The increase in visitors to Bermuda is strongest among 25- to 34-year-olds. This coincides with the average age when couples marry and start families (29 for men, 27 for women, according to the US Census Bureau). From January to September 2016, the number of 25- to 34-year-old visitors increased by nearly 33 percent, from, 17,000 to 22,500 over the previous year. The second largest bump was travelers between 18 and 24, with an increase of more than 20 percent.
Bermuda may be Zika-free, but its coordinates (it's just 570 miles off the coast of North Carolina) puts it at a temperate disadvantage to the Caribbean. The average high temperature is 68 degrees in February. The average high temperature the same month in Puerto Rico is 84. For sun worshipers, the mid-80s sounds much more appealing for a day at the beach.
Still, for those considering starting a family or for couples on a babymoon, a few degrees may not outweigh safety concerns.
"Bookings to the Caribbean and Mexico are taking a beating," said Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations in New York.
Ezon said a quarter of his clients who have normally booked their winter travel by now have yet to book. About 30 percent of his clients who usually take family vacations in the Caribbean, Mexico, or Florida have shifted their destination to Arizona, California, or Hawaii. Bermuda bookings are most popular from May to September.
Bermuda's lack of locally transmitted Zika is not the result of some cosmic lucky break. The government of the British territory has been actively monitoring its mosquito population and taking precautions for decades. As a result, the country has never experienced outbreaks of dengue fever, chikungunya, or Zika.
Bermuda hasn't staved off these mosquito-borne diseases by fogging and spraying neighborhoods with pesticides. The most effective weapon in Bermuda's mosquito war? Six hundred simple glass jars.
"It may not look like much," said David Kendell, director of Bermuda's Department of Health. "But it is incredibly effective."
The glass jar is dark and filled with plain water, replicating the wet, shady places where female mosquitoes commonly lay their eggs. A textured stick in the jar is the perfect place for the mosquito to deposit the eggs. Workers then fan out over the island each week to check the 600 egg trap jars. The eggs and any hatched larvae found in the water are killed, or brought to a lab and studied.
"We don't wait for the eggs to hatch," Kendell said. "We have a higher density of egg traps than any other country. We take surveillance seriously. Anywhere you are in Bermuda, you're probably within 1,000 feet of an egg trap. We have good intel on these mosquitoes."
The mosquitoes that are found in Bermuda are commonly known as the Asian tiger mosquito. The Asian tiger mosquito arrived in the US about 30 years ago. They are less effective at carrying diseases than the Aedes aegypti mosquito and therefore seen as less of a Zika threat. The Aedes aegypti, which hasn't been seen in Bermuda for about a decade, but has been reported in Florida, is responsible for the current Zika outbreak.
The absence of Aedes aegypti hasn't stopped Bermuda's Department of Public Health from keeping close tabs on the situation. In addition to the 600 egg trap jars, there is a team of 20 workers who can enter private property to enforce what Kendell calls "mosquito laws." These federal employees check lawns for everyday objects that collect standing water, such as tires, bird baths, watering cans, pet dishes, and potted plants. Employees are allowed issue citations if homeowners don't address the standing water. They can even prosecute if necessary.
Not only has Bermuda helped advise Caribbean countries on control efforts, it has also become a live laboratory for students at Clark University in Worcester, who visit the island biennially to conduct research experiments and study the island's mosquito population.
"We've benefited a lot from the setting," said Clark professor Todd Livdahl. "We've helped them study the two types of mosquitoes, but they already have a smart, aggressive approach. "
Kendell employs the lexicon of a general when he talks about Bermuda's "strategic strikes," and "reconnaissance missions" against the insects.
"We tend to think we're always at war with mosquitoes," he said. "This year it's Zika, next year it's something else. The trick is to always stay one step ahead of the enemy."