Fear of Zika Virus Is Putting a Damper on Destination Weddings


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Eleanor Davis

Fear, if not the reality of the Zika virus and the mosquitoes that carry it, has not only cast its shadow on the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August, but is upending the carefully laid plans of couples who have long wanted a wedding in an exotic tropical locale.

Now, no party in paradise can proceed without the host taking precautions against the disease-carrying pests. Conscientious brides-to-be are scrambling to have rooms sprayed with insect repellent before guests arrive, pack extra bug spray in all formulations for guests who may not bring any, circulate newsletters with the latest advisories from government agencies and, if they really wish to set a good example, wear long sleeves and pants.

And that assumes that the guests, many in their childbearing years, are going to these events at all. Many of the most popular wedding destinations in Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean are also where the Zika virus has been most active.

JoAnn Gregoli, a wedding planner at Elegant Occasions whose sunny demeanor is in sync with her Skype handle of “happily divorced,” has been dealing with fallout from these outbreaks. Last month, she watched the guest list for one wedding on the Caribbean island of Anguilla melt from 150 to 100 in a matter of weeks. She said that she helped another couple, marrying in Mexico, improvise when a pregnant member of the party was ordered to stay home by her doctor.

Last week, for another wedding in Mexico, she touched down loaded with bug spray. “They’re an older couple so not as nervous,” she said before the wedding, though “anyone young is not coming.”

The potential damage is financial as well as physical, and the virus “will affect everyone more and more,” Ms. Gregoli said.

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Hayley Hines (7 months pregnant) and Bryan Ahearn, married in Arizona June 18, after canceling their original ceremony that was to have taken place in Cancun, Mexico.

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Kameron Gunserson — Sweet Pea Photos

Contracts with wedding vendors tend to be ironclad, requiring deposits and payment deadlines. When booking a wedding at a resort, many require guarantees of a certain number of room bookings on top of the ceremony and reception costs.

Some couples have sought travel and wedding insurance, to guard against the unforeseen. But it unclear how many of these contracts anticipated or will cover the various ways the Zika virus is now impacting couples and their weddings.

Hayley Hines, a 30-year-old Arizona resident, was expecting to be married in Cancún, Mexico, on June 18, with 110 friends and relatives in attendance at a beachside resort. She and her fiancé, Bryan Ahearn, had attended friends’ weddings in that area and wanted the same experience.

The event was booked and practically paid for. Then a guest who was trying to become pregnant backed out; she was concerned that Mexico had reported some cases of Zika, a virus blamed for birth defects. “We’re at the age where people are having their first or second child,” Ms. Hines said.

In February, the bride-to-be discovered that she, too, was expecting, and would have to bow out. Becky Gillespie, the travel consultant who had spent months arranging the wedding, remembered thinking, “Oh, this is going to be a lot of work for nothing.” She spent weeks jumping through hoops with American Airlines, United Airlines and Sandos Cancún Luxury Experience Resort until she was able to return every penny of the $15,300 Ms. Hines and her guests had already paid.

The vendors “did not like it but they understood the situation,” said Ms. Gillespie, who operates For Love of Travel, an agency in Nevada City, Calif. She was “surprised that they let more than just the bride get their money back.”

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A hotel waiter at a destination wedding resort in Cancun, Mexico, delivering “insect repellant” to a room.

Destination weddings — extended extravaganzas (usually with fewer guests) — are sold by travel agencies with love-comic names like Endless Love Travel in Georgetown, Tex.; Create the Moment Travel in Rochester, Wash., and 800 others in the Destination Wedding and Honeymoon Specialists Association.

Part of the allure is the notion that they help newlyweds escape some of the stress of the bigger wedding they might have had at home. But with the Zika threat, “It’s very stressful,” said Lacey Seltzer, a 29-year-old jewelry designer who made plans last year to marry Justin Pollner, 28, this fall at a resort near Cancún.

Getting married on a pretty white-sand beach has been her lifelong dream, according to her mother, Mona Seltzer, and 200 guests have already secured rooms. When the warnings about Zika grew louder earlier this year, the bride-to-be said she did not want to put her friends and guests “in an uncomfortable position” so she called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and now regularly checks the agency’s website. Some recommendations, she said, have been “changing weekly.” Mexico is on the agency’s watch list, though none of its reported cases are anywhere near Cancún.

One of Ms. Seltzer’s bridesmaids withdrew on the advice of a doctor. Fourteen others were “quite on board,” she said, as was every groomsman. The wedding is still on, but “I’m not taking it lightly,” she said.

“I’m upset that it has to be a question in anyone’s mind,”” she added.

The virus is of greatest concern to anyone who may be pregnant or may plan to have children after exposure. If saying your vows in a Zika-affected country means “you’re going to lose your sister because she’s pregnant and can’t go, that’s a problem,” said Annie Lee, a wedding planner. Some couples are keeping the C.D.C.’s phone number, 800-232-4636, next to those of their wedding planner and caterer.

The virus can be transmitted via sexual intercourse as well as by insect bites. Doctors have advised pregnant patients and couples planning to conceive to avoid affected areas or take other precautions to ward off bites. (Last week, the golfer Rory McIlroy became the latest athlete to announce he would not participate in the Summer Games because of his concerns about contracting Zika.)

Travelers who do visit affected areas are also urged to postpone pregnancy, either by refraining from sex or using condoms, for as long as six months to give their bodies time to shed the virus if they get it.

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