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Florida's flying peril: Zika could sting tourism

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Latest MoneyWatch headlines 01:09

Florida, the first state in the U.S. to attract more than 100 million tourists annually, is now facing what might be its biggest challenge ever: the Zika virus.

The sunshine state isn't a stranger to crises, having dealt with everything from an epic housing crash a decade ago to the Orlando nightclub massacre earlier this year. Now the Zika virus may pose a severe economic threat after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned against traveling to a Miami neighborhood where the disease is being spread by mosquitoes.

Zika fight in Florida 04:59

While the CDC is flagging only a small section of Miami, other countries are advising their citizens to avoid Florida altogether, with the U.K. issuing a "moderate risk" alert for the entire state.

Airline JetBlue (JBLU) said on Monday that travelers to destinations affected by Zika, including Miami, can qualify for a refund or change their plans. If travelers cancel their vacation plans for Florida over fears about the virus, which can lead to devastating birth defects for unborn children, the state's $89 billion tourism industry may reel from the impact.

Travelers who are most likely to change their plans are those who are thinking about getting pregnant or who are pregnant, which may limit the impact on Florida's economy, said George Hobica, founder of

"This will impact travel to Florida somewhat and as Zika spreads north and west along the Gulf Coast to Texas and who knows how far, more places will be affected," Hobica said in an email. "But probably only those who are pregnant or planning to be will avoid travel, so the impact will be limited."

Fla. governor on Zika crisis 05:25

Florida Governor Rick Scott told CBS This Morning that the state has experience in controlling mosquito-borne diseases, and he's directed $22.6 million to spend on mosquito-spraying and other measures.

"We've controlled mosquito-warn viruses before -- chikungunya, dengue fever -- we will work hard to make sure we control this," Scott said. "We're going to let everybody know: No standing water, wear bug repellent, wear long sleeves, long pants, it reduces your risk. If you're pregnant, go talk to your OBGYN, and keep yourself informed. But think about how big our state is -- it's a 15 hour drive from Key West to Pensacola, and this is one square mile."

Scott said that the state expects 110 million visitors in 2016, a slight increase from last year's 105 million tourists. While those tourists spent $89 billion last year directly on hotels and other industries, the spending feeds into the rest of Florida's economy, which means a downturn could have much wider implications for the state.

For instance, if hotels in the state cut back on staff because of fewer visitors, laid-off employees could struggle to meet their mortgages, weakening the housing sector, which is indirectly supported by the 1.2 million people who work in the state's tourism industry.

To data, 14 people in Florida have come down with Zika that was transmitted locally, according to the Florida Department of Health.

While Florida is spending millions to fight Zika, funding at the federal level stalled out. The White House proposed $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight the disease, but a bill to spend $1.1 billion on Zika died in Congress earlier this year.

The cost of Zika could be enormous if even hundreds of children are born in the U.S. with microcephaly, one the defects caused by the disease. The birth defect isn't curable, and the lifetime cost of caring for one child with microcephaly has been estimated as high as $10 million. Microcephaly is a defect in which a child's head is smaller than it should be, which can cause problems with brain development.

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