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Brazil lifts visa restrictions for Olympics but Zika fears dissuading Canadians

The Rio de Janeiro Olympics continue to be hit with bad press, largely due to concerns about security and the Zika virus. It's no wonder Canadians don't appear to be eager to head to Brazil for the Games.

Concerns about the Zika virus and security mean travel bookings to Brazil are 'flat'

The upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics has been plagued with bad press that could deter travellers. (Wassilios Aswestopoulos/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Poor Brazil. The Rio de Janeiro Olympics haven't even started yet and the event has already been tarnished by everything from political corruption to severe water pollution to fears about the Zika virus.

"It's unfortunate, but the only news coming out of there seems to be negative," says sports marketing expert and University of Toronto professor Richard Powers.

To top it all off, just yesterday high profile golfer Rory McIlroy announced he's pulling out of the Games because of Zika virus concerns.

"My health and my family's health comes before everything else," Mcllroy said in a statement.

Rory McIlroy will not take part in golf's return to the Olympics. (Brian Lawless/PA via The Associated Press)

​With all the bad publicity, it's no wonder that Canadians don't appear to be clamouring to head to Brazil to take in the Games.

Bookings to Brazil this summer are "really kind of flat" compared to last year, says Allison Wallace, spokeswoman for the Flight Centre travel agency.

Brazil waived its mandatory visa requirement for Canadians — along with Americans, Japanese and Australians — from now until mid-September. The country launched the incentive to boost tourism around the time of the Olympics, which runs from Aug. 5 to 21.

The visa exemption means a saving of more than $200 per person, not to mention the time saved by skipping paperwork. It doesn't appear to be helping.

Wallace said she saw a spike in travel inquiries and bookings to Brazil following the announcement it would be hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

"It did put them on the map," says Wallace, who is based in Vancouver. "Unfortunately, Zika has kind of quelled that demand."

The Zika factor

Brazil is battling an outbreak of the Zika virus, which spreads to people primarily through mosquito bites.

"Only the most gullible tourist would think [Brazil is safe] safe," says University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran, who specializes in public health.

Late last month, he co-authored an open letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), calling for the Games to be delayed or relocated "in the name of public health."

Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran believes the upcoming Olympics in Rio should be delayed or relocated due to the threat of the Zika virus. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

More than 200 health professionals and other scientists signed the letter which states that the Zika virus can cause severe birth defects and, in adults, neurological problems.

The letter also warns that foreign tourists descending on the Olympics could "potentially acquire that strain, and return home to places where it can become endemic." 

The World Health Organization responded to the letter, saying there is "no public health justification" for rearranging the Games. Earlier this month, Brazil's health minister said the risk of the Zika virus being spread during the Olympics is "minimal."

But the bad press continues. The Public Health Agency of Canada has issued a travel health notice for people heading to the Olympics, recommending they "practise special precautions," because of the Zika threat.

It also advises that pregnant women and those planning a pregnancy should avoid the Olympics.

Wallace believes the Zika virus poses a low risk for tourists, adding that Canada issues travel advisories for many countries. However, she says, with the attention the virus is getting, Canadians are more likely to take the Brazil travel notice to heart.

"There's no question, if there's a perceived risk, it will deter a certain number of travellers."

Olympic travel ain't what it used to be?

Brazil is selling tickets to the Olympics, but not as quickly as it had hoped. With just a little over a month to go, 30 per cent of tickets remain unsold.

On Monday, organizers opened ticket kiosks throughout Rio de Janeiro in hopes of boosting sales.

Health workers get ready to spray insecticide to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmits the Zika virus under the bleachers of the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, which will be used for the Archery competition in the 2016 Summer Games. (Leo Correa/Associated Press)

Alexander Handa, founder of the Toronto-based I Love Travel agency, says he's seen travel to Olympic events decline over the years. Major deterrents include the high costs of attending the events, and an increase in security threats.

"There's a lot of talk before these major world events about the security precautions ... That's not very inviting to tourists."

Handa also points out that people don't need to travel to experience the Games. "Everybody has HD TVs at home and the coverage that you get of the Olympics is arguably better on your television." 

He adds that, for Brazil, the Zika virus just adds another reason not to travel to the Olympics.  

Brazil's bad press may keep some tourists at bay. But marketing expert Powers doesn't think it will have a lasting effect. He believes that as soon the Games begin, fears about the Zika virus and other concerns will dissipate.

"Everything will be forgotten and the focus will be where it should be, on the athletes and their performances."

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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