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Will tourists stay away from Florida and Tampa Bay because of Zika?

TAMPA — Florida has welcomed a record number of tourists every year since 2011 and hopes to attract 115 million travelers this year, another first.

The string of records was broken despite challenges after the BP oil spill and tropical storms.

Now threatening to end the record run: Zika.

"Yes, I'm losing sleep," said Santiago Corrada, the head of Hillsborough County's tourism agency, Visit Tampa Bay.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned pregnant women and those planning to become pregnant to avoid a patch of Miami after a dozen people were infected with Zika there by mosquito bites. It is believed to be the first time the federal agency has issued such a warning within the continental United States.

Tourism officials say it's too soon to say whether news of the virus will deter people from visiting the state. Tampa Bay tourism leaders say they so far haven't received reports of cancellations.

"We don't know what will happen next," said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president for public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association. "It still feels like we are in the early stages."

But some people who run local tourist attractions are concerned.

"This could be really, really bad," said Carole Baskin, founder of Tampa's Big Cat Rescue. She worries tourism could plummet nearly as much as it did after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"No one was traveling," Baskin said. "We went into dire times. We were scared to death for about a year and a half."

Though there haven't been any reports of people contracting Zika from mosquito bites in the Tampa Bay area, local tourism officials are concerned that news stories circulating around the nation and world may not make that clear.

"Florida gets painted with a broad brush stroke," said David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, Pinellas County's tourism marketing bureau.

Even if news reports do make it clear, people, especially overseas, may not know the difference between Miami and Tampa Bay.

Said Corrada: "When we were trying to bring the Bollywood Awards here and we were in India, I had people coming up and asking where in Miami is Tampa. We have to go through a geography lesson."

However, travel warnings issued by Canada and the United Kingdom this week are at least reaching a population that knows Florida well; both are top international feeders to the state.

"Institutional knowledge of Florida is an asset for us," Downing said.

Meanwhile, representatives for outdoor tourism attractions are keeping an eye on the news, stocking up on bug spray and hoping visitors keep coming.

Lauren Kleinfeld, manager of Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, said the effect on visitors has been minimal. She hopes it stays that way.

"We have not seen any big impact at all so far," she said. "We do offer the bug wipes and we recommend they use them."

Baskin at Big Cat Rescue also said she keeps a "big table full of bug spray" for visitors and regularly treats the area with pesticides to ensure her visitors, employees and animals are protected.

Grella, from the U.S. Travel Association, said Florida's strong tourism focus could help it pull through as the Zika situation evolves.

"Nobody would ever wish these circumstances on themselves but (Florida) is more equipped to handle the tougher times than others," he said.

Contact Alli Knothe at aknothe@tampabay.com. Follow @KnotheA.

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