Travel insurance sales soar on Zika fears

Army soldiers prepare for a clean up operation against the Aedes aegypti mosquito in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo / AP
Army soldiers prepare for a clean up operation against the Aedes aegypti mosquito in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo / AP

Travel insurance sales for trips to Latin America have surged, a top provider says, as travellers consider scrapping planned trips to avoid the rapidly spreading Zika virus.

US-based company RoamRight, part of insurer Arch Capital Group, said revenue had jumped 81 per cent in January compared to a year ago for its "Cancel For Any Reason" policy covering trips to Zika-impacted areas in the Americas.

The rise provides an early insight into how traveller patterns are changing because of the mosquito-borne virus, even as airlines and hotel chains say it is too soon to tell whether Zika has dented bookings.

The World Health Organisation on Monday called the virus, linked to thousands of birth defects in Brazil, an international health emergency that could infect as many as four million people in the Americas.

"We see that kind of growth when there is a terrorist attack or some other event that precipitates people thinking about protecting their travel costs," said Linda Fallon, head of RoamRight and senior vice president of travel for the group's Arch Insurance Company division.

RoamRight, ranked third by sales in 2015 on travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth, declined to comment on how the boost would impact its profitability because it does not know how many customers will claim refunds and, therefore, what losses it will incur.

For this reason, it also was too early to consider whether to charge customers more, Fallon added.

Parent Arch Capital does not disclose RoamRight's total sales but reported group revenue of US$932.6 million (NZ$1.43 billion) and net income of US$64 million in the third quarter of 2015.

Top US airlines currently are promising refunds for tickets to the region, although American Airlines Group has limited the offer to pregnant travellers and their companions, while other carriers have specified a deadline for invoking the offer.

Fallon said holidaymakers were turning to insurance, not necessarily scrapping plans altogether, because they were not yet sure how the virus would impact them or how severe outbreaks would be at the time of travel.

"People are just looking to take precaution," she said.

"This gives people the peace of mind."

Since December 2015, RoamRight had seen a nearly 10 per cent rise in orders for all its policies covering trips to the more than 20 countries and territories in the Americas impacted by the virus, the company said.

Rival insurer Tin Leg said it had not seen a significant increase in sales attributable to Zika but noted that cancelling a trip because of concerns of the virus was not covered by its standard policies. It added that the virus was "a major topic of questions we receive from our customers".

InsureandGo USA, Travel Insured International, AXA Assistance USA and Trip Mate did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

- AAP

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