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Uber Scrambles to Head Off Brazil Bill Regulating Ride Software

Hundreds of drivers for the internet based ride-hailing firm Uber drove through Brazil’s largest cities on Monday to protest legislation that would turn them into regular taxi drivers subject to the same local licensing and taxation rules.

The chief executive of Uber Technologies Inc, Dara Khosrowshahi, arrived in Brazil to lobby against the bill that is due to be voted on by the Senate on Tuesday and which threatens the company’s business in a fast-growing foreign market.

Brazil is Uber’s third-largest market, with 17 million users, and the city of Sao Paulo sees more trips on the ride-hailing service than any other city in the world, ahead of New York and Mexico City, according to the company.

A spokesman for the company said the application as it exists could not operate under the new rules, including the use of a taxi license plate on cars owned by Uber drivers.

“The business model we have today would not longer be viable,” Uber’s executive spokesman in Brazil Fabio Sabba told Reuters.

Uber is already battling to keep operating in London after the city’s transport regulator deemed it unfit to run a taxi service and refused to renew its license.

Police said 800 Uber drivers drove through the center of Brazil’s capital Brasilia to protest the bill that many say will put them out of business. Similar protests in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro snarled downtown traffic.

Uber did not organize the drivers’ protests but alerted authorities that they would happen.

“The bill will create so much bureaucracy that it prevents the 500,000 drivers in Brazil from earning income for their families,” Uber said in a statement.

Uber said it has paid 495 million reais ($150 million) in federal and municipal taxes so far this year.

The bill, which has already been approved by the lower house of Congress, would define ride hailing applications as public transport instead of private services and require drivers to get a special permit from city authorities. It would also establish additional regulations and taxes.

If the Senate votes to approve the bill, it will be up to President Michel Temer to sign or veto the legislation or parts of it.

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Argentina’s Macri Vows to Pursue Tax, Labor, Pension Reforms

Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri vowed to press ahead with reforms to the country’s tax, labor and retirement systems in a speech on Monday, a week after his “Let’s Change” coalition swept to victory at the polls in midterm elections.

The government will present a tax reform proposal this Tuesday or Wednesday, and an amnesty plan for companies that hired workers informally in the coming days, Macri said. He added that the government would convene a commission to propose changes to the retirement system in coming weeks.

The speech marked a roadmap for the second half of Macri’s four-year term, as he seeks to implement business-friendly reforms to attract investors who avoided the country during more than a decade of populist rule.

“We need lower taxes, more public works, and all this we need to achieve with fiscal balance,” Macri told a gathering of lawmakers, governors, union leaders, judges and others.

Investors have been encouraged by the reforms Macri has implemented since taking office in December 2015, including lifting foreign exchange controls, settling with holdout creditors, and lowering export taxes.

But significant investment has not arrived. Companies have demanded lower costs, while credit agencies are concerned about a deep fiscal deficit.

Macri’s coalition swept the five most populous areas in midterm elections, giving him a broader mandate to pass reforms, though it still lacks majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Macri said his government had reduced the country’s tax burden, and wanted to make the system “simpler, clearer, and fairer.”

He reiterated the government’s aim of slashing Argentina’s fiscal deficit by one percentage point of gross domestic product per year.

And he also vowed to reform the country’s retirement system, a large driver of government spending.

“We need to start a mature and honest conversation about our retirement and pension system,” Macri said. “Our retirement system hides serious inequities, and it is not sustainable.”

While Macri has said he does not plan major changes to the country’s labor code, he has said the government plans to provide incentives to companies to formalize undeclared workers and work with unions in specific sectors to lower costs.

Macri also pledged reforms to the country’s justice system to combat corruption. Cabinet Chief Marcos Pena told journalists that the resignation on Monday of chief prosecutor Alejandra Gils Carbo, appointed during the former administration of President Cristina Fernandez, was a step towards making the judiciary more independent.

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Blockchain Technology Could Unblock Southeast Asia

Imagine you could swipe your phone over a piece of fish in the supermarket and instantly see secure records of its entire path through the supply chain, from the technique used by the fisherman who caught it in Indonesia to when it was shipped and how it was processed at a factory in your home country —  all at the tap of a smartphone.

Trial projects such as that one are testing the potential of Blockchain technology to bring transparency to all sorts of notoriously inefficient or shadowy industries in Southeast Asia.

Blockchain, the technology that powers bitcoin, is an essentially unchangeable form of bookkeeping. It creates cryptographically chained signatures between blocks of information that are authenticated by users over a peer-to-peer distributed ledger — a public record that can be applied to any type of bookkeeping, not just cryptocurrencies.

“It removes the requirement for a centralized authority, and in a lot of the products that it’s being launched in, this centralized authority tends to be the government,” said Alisa DiCaprio, head of research at R3 — an enterprise banking software firm that uses distributed ledger technology.

In a region where the most important records — identity and ownership for instance — are often subjected to little or no external oversight, blockchain offers enormous potential benefits.

Erin Murphy, Founder and Principal of Inle Advisory Group, a Myanmar and emerging business advisory firm, said major Asian business hubs are looking to blockchain to clean up and simplify transactions.

“Ideally, we would want to see adoption of blockchain at an official level all across the region,” she said in an email. “But perhaps not surprisingly, the governments that are leading blockchain adoption are those that are already low-corruption.”

One of those governments, she said, is Singapore, which is working with major banks on a blockchain-based system to streamline and qualitatively improve their customer (KYC) processes.

In other countries, it is being used for completely different purposes. In the Philippines, a remittance market worth billions of dollars per month has been invaded by firms offering cheaper services built on blockchain, which people can access without a bank account..

“Any steps that get taken at first may not be viewed through an anti-corruption lens and may inadvertently tackle that issue; it will likely be viewed through a development lens to kickstart poverty alleviation and bringing sectors up to international standards that attract foreign investment,” Murphy said.

More than money

There are many trials with clear utility in Southeast Asia underway, including systems for land titling under development in Sweden and Japan.

In June, the United Nations unveiled a blockchain-based system built in partnership with Microsoft and Accenture that gives stateless refugees a permanent identity based on biometric data.

It’s also being explored for secure voting systems.

The blockchain-based app developed to track the supply chain of fish from Indonesia — Provenance — is now the basis of many other trials, including a project to create a similar system for the garment industry.

Online you can view the results of a pilot released in May this year that follows a piece of clothing — an Alpaca Mirror Jumper from London-based designer Martine Jarlgaard, from a farm in Dulverton, Britain, through every step of production into London with location, content and timestamps.

It is a long way, though, from realizing that something can be done to actually making it happen, DiCaprio of R3 said.

“The technical capability to do this exists in most developing countries,” she said. “You have engineers who can code on the blockchain. But the understanding of how to actually implement this from a business point of view is very poor.”

DiCaprio estimates it will take about five years before we actually see large-scale functioning applications and believes the most impactful will occur at the macro economic level.

“So for example one area that it’s moving very quickly is trade finance,” she said. “And trade finance, you’re generally talking about fairly large companies, generally in Asia mostly exporting or importing from or to the US or EU,.”

Faster, cheaper and more transparent transactions combined with reductions in the risks of lending and borrowing would flow to down to the village level, she added.

Subversion vs centralization

Blockchain proponents are divided by some sharply divergent values. Some see blockchain — whose slogan is “be your own bank,” as technology that can fundamentally upend a global financial system they believe is intractably corrupt.

“There is a serious opportunity for us here to remove money out of government,” said a Southeast Asia based bitcoin trader who would only give his alias FlippingABitCoin, fearing he could expose himself to physical theft.

Billions of people currently excluded from the formal banking system will be able to access global cryptocurrencies with no middle man using nothing more than a phone, he said.

“It will level out the playing field of power,” he said.

Another group of enthusiasts are encouraging the absorption of this technology by states, as demonstrated by Canada, Singapore, China and Germany, all of which are either exploring or conducting trials of their own central bank digital currencies using blockchain.

“In the long run, we believe if there is any threat at all to governments, it is that other governments will lead the way in adopting blockchain technologies in producing low-corruption, high-transparency, highly-secure digitized economic infrastructures that will attract business, investment and stakeholder confidence,” wrote Michael Hsieh, a non-resident affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, in an email.

“The societies who lead in the great fintech [financial technology] innovation race of the 21st century will siphon all the capital and productivity from those that lag,” he wrote.

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India’s New Afghan Trade Route Via Iran, Bypasses Pakistan

Opening a new trade route to Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan, India has dispatched its first consignment of wheat to the war torn country via the Iranian port of Chabahar.

The strategic sea route is a significant step in bolstering trade with Kabul that has been hampered because rival Pakistan does not allow India to transport goods to Afghanistan through its territory.

After the shipment was seen off by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Afghan counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani via a joint video conference Sunday, the Indian government called it a “landmark moment.”

In the coming months, six more consignments of wheat totaling 1.1. million tons will be sent from India’s western port of Kandla to Chabahar. From the Iranian port it will be taken by road to Kabul.

The shipment comes days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on a visit to New Delhi, allayed concerns that the Trump administration’s tough stand on Iran could pose a fresh stumbling block to India’s plans to develop the strategic Iranian port as a regional transit hub.

Easier connectivity to Afghanistan is key for India to step up its economic engagement with Kabul, which Washington has called for as part of its new policy to stabilize the war torn country.

And Chabahar port, in which India is investing $500 million to build new terminals, cargo berths and connecting road and rail lines, is the centerpiece of the strategy to improve linkages not just with Afghanistan, but also to resource-rich Central Asian republics.

“This is the first time that we are getting into Afghanistan through a route different than what traditional routes have been,” said South Asia expert Sukh Deo Muni at New Delhi’s Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses.

Indian leaders expressed optimism about the project, which is still a work in progress. Minister Swaraj called it the starting point of a journey that would spur the unhindered flow of commerce and trade throughout the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted the launch of the trade route, “marks a new chapter in regional cooperation & connectivity.”

The sea route via the Iranian port is the second step taken by India to increase connectivity with Kabul. In June it opened an air freight corridor to provide greater access for Afghan goods to the Indian market.

The Chabahar port is seen as India’s answer to the Gwadar port in Pakistan being developed by China.

The project was conceived almost 15 years ago, but the plans were stalled for years due to U.S. led international sanctions on Iran. Their easing prompted India to sign a trilateral pact with Iran and Afghanistan last year to develop the port.

U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson indicated in New Delhi last week that fresh sanctions on Iran by the Trump administration would not pose a stumbling block to those plans.

“It is not our objective to harm the Iranian people, nor is it our objective to interfere with legitimate business activities that are going on with other businesses, whether they be from Europe, India or agreements that are in place that promote economic development and activity to the benefit of our friends and allies as well. We think there is no contradiction within that policy,” he told reporters in India.

Those words have been welcomed in New Delhi said analyst Muni. “I think there is a far more reassuring feeling in India vis-a-vis the Trump administration than what the initial thought was,” he said.

The shortest and most cost effective land routes between India and Afghanistan lie through Pakistan. However, due to longstanding rivalries between the two countries, India is not allowed to send any exports through Pakistani territory and Afghanistan is only allowed to send a limited amount of perishable goods through Pakistani territory to India.

 

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Trump Tax Overhaul Under Intensifying Fire as Congress Readies Bill

President Donald Trump’s plan for overhauling the U.S. tax system faced growing opposition from interest groups on Sunday, as Republicans prepare to unveil sweeping legislation that could eliminate some of the most popular tax breaks to help pay for lower taxes.

Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives will not reveal their bill until Wednesday. But the National Association of Home Builders, a powerful housing industry trade group, is already vowing to defeat it over a change for home mortgage deductions, while Republican leaders try to head off opposition to possible changes to individual retirement savings and state and local tax payments.

Trump and Republicans have vowed to enact tax reform this year for the first time since 1986. But the plan to deliver up to $6 trillion in tax cuts for businesses and individuals faces challenges even from rank-and-file House Republicans.

House and Senate Republicans are on a fast-track to pass separate tax bills before the Nov. 23 U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, iron out differences in December, send a final version to Trump’s desk before January and ultimately hand the president his first major legislative victory. Analysts say there is a good chance the tax overhaul will be delayed until next year.

The NAHB, which boasts 130,000 member firms employing 9 million workers, says the bill would harm U.S. home prices by marginalizing the value of mortgage interest deductions as an incentive for buying homes. The trade group wants legislation to offer a $5,500 tax credit but says it was rebuffed by House Republican leaders.

“We’re opposed to the tax bill without the tax credit in there, and we’ll be working very aggressively to see it defeated,” NAHB chief executive Jerry Howard told Reuters.

Republicans warned that the Trump tax plan is entering a new and difficult phase as lobbyists ramp up pressure on lawmakers to spare their pet tax breaks.

“When groups start rallying against things and they succeed, everything starts unraveling,” Senator Bob Corker, a leading Republican fiscal hawk, told CBS’ Face the Nation.

Anxiety in high-tax states

One of the biggest challenges involves a proposal to eliminate the federal deduction for state and local taxes (SALT), which analysts say would hit upper middle-class families in high income tax states such as New York, New Jersey and California. The states are home to enough House Republicans to stymie legislation.

The top House Republican on tax policy gave ground over the weekend, saying he would allow a deduction for some local taxes to remain.

“We are restoring an itemized property tax deduction to help taxpayers with local tax burdens,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady said in a statement.

But the gesture appeared to do little to turn the tide of opposition to SALT’s elimination.

“I’m not going to sign onto anything until the full package is fully analyzed by economists,” Representative Peter King of New York told the Fox News program Sunday Morning Futures. “The fact that we’re getting it at the eleventh hour raises real issues with me,” he added.

A lobby coalition representing state and local governments, realtors and public unions rejected Brady’s statement outright, saying the move would “unfairly penalize taxpayers in states that rely significantly on income taxes.”

House Republicans have also faced opposition from Trump and others after proposing to sharply curtail tax-free contributions to 401(k) programs and move retirement savings to a style of account that allows tax-free withdrawals, rather than the tax-exempt contributions that are popular with 401(k) investors.

House Republicans now say they could permit higher 401(k) contribution limits but continue to talk about tax-free withdrawals. “We will expand the amount that you can invest. But we’ll also give you an option to actually not be taxed later in life,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News.

The current cap on annual 401(k) tax-free contributions is $18,000.

Corker said congressional tax committees seem to be falling short of their goal to eliminate $4 trillion in tax breaks to prevent the Trump plan from adding to the federal deficit.

“They’re having great difficulty just getting to $3.6 trillion,” said the Tennessee Republican, who has vowed to vote against tax reform if it increases a federal debt load that stands at more than $20 trillion.

Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, told Fox News Sunday that spending on entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security should also be reviewed as part of the effort to pay for tax cuts.

“It may be separate from the tax bill, but it needs to happen,” Kasich said.

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For Spanish, Catalan Economies, No Winners in Standoff

Xavier Gabriel can take some credit if the tiny Catalan mountain town of Sort is one of the most famous in Spain.

He runs a lottery shop called La Bruja de Oro, or The Golden Witch, in a town whose name, aptly, means “Luck” in Catalan. Its fortune in having sold many prize-winning tickets has made it a household name and a successful online business.

But the crisis surrounding Catalonia’s push for independence has changed life for 60-year-old Gabriel. He joined more than 1,500 companies in moving their official headquarters out of the wealthy region in recent weeks. Their main fear: that they would no longer be covered by Spanish and European Union laws if Catalonia manages to break away, dragging their businesses into unknown territory.

“The time had come to make a decision,” said Gabriel, who employs 16 people and describes himself as a proud Catalan.

​Hedging their bets

Like Gabriel’s, the vast majority of companies that moved their headquarters didn’t transfer workers or assets, such as bank holdings or production equipment. So far, it’s mainly a form of legal insurance. But as the political crisis escalates, the risk is that companies are deferring investments and hiring. There is evidence that tourists are holding off booking, perhaps frightened by images in the media of police crackdowns, street demonstrations and strikes.

And the situation risks getting worse before it improves: the central government’s decision Friday to take control of the region could spiral out of control if there is popular resistance, whether by citizens or local authorities like the Catalan police force.

“There is absolutely no doubt that the crisis is having a very damaging effect on the economy,” said Javier Diaz Gimenez, an economics professor at Spain’s prestigious IESE Business School.

Financial markets in Spain have so far fallen only modestly, reflecting investors’ apparent belief that the tensions will eventually be resolved. The Spanish government has called a regional election in Catalonia for Dec. 21 and could later consider revisions to the constitution that might placate some of the independence supporters.

But that could take some time, Diaz Gimenez says, given how confrontational both sides have been.

Banks leave

The list of businesses moving headquarters includes Catalonia’s top two banks, Caixabank and Sabadell, which are among Spain’s top five lenders. Then there is the Codorniu cava sparkling wine maker for which Catalonia is famous. Another well-known cava maker, Freixenet, is also planning to follow if the independence drive continues. Publishing giant Planeta, the world’s leading Spanish-language publisher and second biggest publisher in France, has also moved its official address out of Catalonia.

Caixabank says it suffered a moderate but temporary run on deposits because of the crisis, but said it has since recovered and was adamant the move was permanent.

Shares for Caixabank, Sabadell and some other companies have been volatile, falling after the Oct. 1 vote for independence and jumping sharply when they announced their decision to move headquarters.

Tip of the iceberg

Lottery shop owner Gabriel says ticket sales this month are up nearly 300 percent over last year, a rise he attributed to popular support for his decision to move his business.

Diaz Gimenez said the decisions to move headquarters, while not immediately affecting jobs, were “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“Plans to relocate firms or invest elsewhere are going to accelerate and some of it is going to go to, say, Poland, and it’s never going to come back,” he said.

“People that were thinking about investing in Spain and Barcelona are starting to think again,” he said. “It’s not just Catalonia. It’s the mismanagement by Spain, which is proving that it’s not a serious country because it cannot solve this thing.”

Spanish economy humming

The turmoil, ironically, comes just as Spain has been enjoying some of the fastest economic growth in Europe.

Its economy, the fourth-largest in the 19-country eurozone, grew by a hefty quarterly rate of 0.9 percent in the second quarter. The government has maintained its forecast for growth in 2017 at 3.1 percent, but revised its estimate for 2018 from 2.6 percent to 2.3 percent because of the political crisis. Moody’s credit rating agency has warned that a continued political impasse and, ultimately, independence for Catalonia would severely hurt the country’s credit rating.

Billions at stake

Tourism seems to be taking the biggest hit so far.

Experts say spending in the sector in Catalonia in the first two weeks of October — that is, following the independence referendum — was down 15 percent from a year earlier.

Tourism represents about 11 percent of Spain’s 1.1-trillion euro ($1.3 trillion) gross domestic product, with Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona, providing a fifth of that, being the most popular destinations for visitors.

Exceltur, a nonprofit group formed by the 25 leading Spanish tourist groups, expects growth in tourism this year to ease from an estimated 4.1 percent to 3.1 percent.

Reservations in Barcelona alone are down 20 percent compared with last year, it said. If the trend continues in the final three months of the year, it could lead to losses of up to 1.2 billion euros ($1.41 billion) in the sector, which in turn could affect jobs.

Analysts fear that the independence movement’s stated aim of continuing to create as much social and economic chaos for Spain as possible could exacerbate the situation. The Catalan National Assembly group has been openly talking about a boycott against Spain’s top companies and major strike activity.

“Spain, its tourism, everything is very dependent on image,” Diaz Gimenez said. “And this is just killing it.”

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On Climate Change, It’s Trump vs. Markets

At the 2015 Paris summit, world leaders pledged to take steps to avoid catastrophic climate change. This November in Bonn, Germany, U.N. negotiators will be back, working out the details of how to cut emissions of planet-warming gases. It is the first conference since President Donald Trump said the United States would withdraw from the agreement. That leaves questions about the direction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. As VOA’s Steve Baragona reports, the answer is not straightforward.

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Artisans in Mali Hope to Bring Back an Ancient Fabric Style

Artisans in Mali are hoping that Bogolan, a traditional cotton fabric, will continue to fascinate Western fashion designers and provide jobs at home. VOA’s Teffera Girma Teffera and Bagassi Koura visited a small neighborhood in central Bamako where artisans are hard at work. Salem Solomon narrates.

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Retailers Offer New Tools to Help Shoppers Find Clothes That Fit

Stores watching Amazon take a larger share of clothing sales are trying to solve one of the most vexing issues for online shoppers: finding items that fit properly.

The retailers are unleashing tools that use artificial intelligence to replicate the help a salesperson at a store might offer, calculate a shopper’s most likely body shape, or use 3-D models for a virtual fitting room experience. Amazon, which some analysts say will surpass Macy’s this year as the largest U.S. clothing seller, is offering some customers an Alexa-powered device that doubles as a selfie-stick machine and a stylist.

Retailers want to reduce the rate of online returns, which can be up to 40 percent, and thus make customers happier — and more likely to be repeat shoppers. And the more interaction shoppers have with a brand, the more the technology will learn about shoppers’ preferences, said Vicky Zadeh, chief executive of Rakuten Fits Me, a tech company that works with QVC and clothing startup brands.

 

“It’s all about confidence,” she said. “If they have the confidence to buy, they will come back to the retailer time and time again.”

The push is coming from big names like Levi’s and The Gap and startups like Rhone and Taylrd.

Levi’s new Virtual Stylist texts back and forth with online customers to offer recommendations, based on their preferences. Marc Rosen, Levi’s president of global e-commerce, said early tests show the chatbot is driving more browsers to become buyers.

Reliance on body shape

Rakuten Fits Me, which works with QVC and other companies, fine-tuned its fitting technology this summer and said its retail partners now offer garments that should fit shoppers’ body shapes when the customer first does the initial search. Shoppers provide three measurements — height, weight and age — and then it calculates a person’s most likely body shape, not size, to determine the fit for any garment and offer more accurate recommendations.

And Gap Inc. has an augmented reality app in collaboration with Google and startup Avametric that allows shoppers to virtually try on clothes. Shoppers enter information like height and weight and then the app puts a 3-D model in front of them. However, the tool only works on Google Tango smartphones.

Sebastian DiGrande, executive vice president and strategy and chief customer officer at Gap, said the augmented reality app had produced good feedback, but the company is still determining whether shoppers really want a virtual 3-D model.

Clothing brand Tommy Hilfiger similarly has built its mobile app around the camera and image recognition. It has an augmented reality feature enabling shoppers to see what the clothes look like on a virtual runway model — but not their own body type.

And men’s online clothier Bonobos, now owned by Wal-Mart, launched an app that offers customers a virtual closet to see items they bought and saved. The app is converting browsers to buyers at a faster rate, said Andy Dunn, founder of Bonobos.

Companies are smart to offer new tools, but many are too “gimmicky,” said Sapna Shah, principal at Red Giraffe Advisors, which makes early-stage investments in fashion tech.

“If it’s not Amazon, will brand-specific apps be the way for people to shop in the future?” she said. “How many apps are people going to have on their phone?”

And all the companies need to win over customers who prefer to touch and see things in person.

“It’s great that they’re busting their tail with all these apps, but I am skeptical,” said Doug Garnett of Portland, Oregon. Garnett said he buys some clothes online when he knows and understands the brands, but otherwise, “I really need to see them on my body before I act, and really prefer that to be in a store.”

Personalized offers

As Amazon dives further into fashion, it could use its base of data to spur trends and personalize offers for its customers. Its Echo Look features a built-in camera that photographs and records shoppers trying on clothes and offers recommendations on outfits. It works with its Style Check app, using machine learning and advice from experts. The potential: Learn shoppers’ styles and recommend outfits to buy. Amazon reportedly is exploring the idea of quickly fulfilling online orders for custom-fit clothing.

The company also reportedly acquired Body Labs, which creates true-to-life 3-D body models.

“We’re always listening to our customers, learning and innovating on their behalf and bringing them products we think they will love,” said Amazon spokeswoman Molly Wade. She wouldn’t comment on the prospect of custom-fit or the reports about Body Labs.

Steve Barr, the U.S. retail and consumer sector leader at consultants PwC, said that Amazon was trying for a curated experience based on massive data analytics. But he said he thought such an approach had limitations.

“No matter how great Amazon is with artificial intelligence and predictive behaviors,” Barr said, “they can’t put a red tab on a pair of a jeans or a swoosh on a pair of shoes.”

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Weirdness, Few Tourists, Return to Key West After Irma

Things are weird, as usual, in Key West.

A pair of Vikings push a stroller full of stuffed chimps down Duval Street. A man with a ponytail swallows a steel sword. People dressed only in body paint and glitter wander and jiggle from bar to bar.

Fantasy Fest, one of Key West’s major tourist draws of the year, is in full swing. And that’s a relief for Florida Keys business owners trying to weather the economic storm that hit after Hurricane Irma battered the middle stretch of the tourism-dependent island chain.

Bucket list trip

The festivities have not disappointed Gary Gates from Buffalo, New York, who planned this “bucket list” trip 10 months ago with six friends.

“We were coming whether there was a hurricane or not,” the former NFL cameraman said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this. To come down here and actually see people dressed in all kinds of costumes — or no costumes at all — was something that I needed to see.”

Gates flew into Key West and has not left during its annual 10-day festival of costume parties and parades, so he has not seen the devastation that lingers more than a month since Hurricane Irma made landfall Sept. 10 about 20 miles north of the city.

​Middle Keys hit hardest

The mostly residential middle stretch of the island chain took the brunt of the hurricane’s 130-mph winds. The area is almost entirely brown, with debris piled alongside the highway and mangroves stripped bare. A stranded boat was christened the SS Irma with spray paint and offered “free” to drivers passing by.

But at opposite ends of the 120-mile-long island chain, tourist attractions in Key Largo and Key West escaped significant damage.

Dolphins Plus Bayside was ready for visitors three days after Irma’s landfall, but business has been down by half compared to last fall, said Mike Borguss, the third generation in his family to run the Key Largo attraction.

Some staff now live with friends or in temporary trailers parked outside their damaged homes, but the dolphins swim up to the water’s edge to check out new people toting cameras, and an adjacent hotel property is open for weddings and other events that had to be canceled elsewhere in the Keys because of Irma, said Art Cooper, Borguss’ cousin and curator at Dolphins Plus Bayside.

“The water’s pretty, the weather’s beautiful and we wish you were here,” Cooper said.

​Tourism down significantly

Scott Saunders, president and CEO of Fury Water Adventures, estimated tourism in Key West has been about a third of what it was at this time last fall, even though the city’s hotels, restaurants, cruise ship operations and beaches quickly reopened after the storm.

“There’s no reason not to be doing everything we did last year,” Saunders said before one of his fleet’s sunset cruises. “We should be having that tourist base down here, but we haven’t had any.”

Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West, blames news coverage of Irma, but not the hurricane itself, for the downturn.

“There was over a $100 million worth of negative press,” Weinhofer said.

Tourism big business in Keys

Tourism is a $2.7 billion industry in the Keys, supporting 54 percent of all jobs in the island chain, according to Monroe County’s Tourist Development Council.

Some jobs have been lost to Irma. Last week, Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key, about 35 miles northeast of Irma’s landfall, let go 260 workers amid ongoing repairs. The Islamorada Resort Company said its four properties in the Middle Keys will be closed for renovations over the next six months.

But up and down the island chain, bars, marinas and mom-and-pop establishments able to reopen have been hiring laid-off workers and keeping people from moving away, Daniel Samess, CEO of the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce.

About 70 percent of roughly 35 hotels and motels in the Middle Keys are open, though those rooms mostly are filled by displaced residents and state and federal recovery workers. Officials plan to provide alternative housing and open those hotel rooms fully to tourists within the next two months, Samess said.

Final sweeps for debris in some parts of the Keys are scheduled Sunday, which also is the finale for Fantasy Fest. So far, the amount of broken tree branches and remnants of homes and belongings wrecked by Irma could fill over 133 Goodyear Blimps, according to Monroe County officials.

The cleanup will help create a good impression for visitors to Key West long before they arrive in the southernmost city in the continental U.S., said Key West Mayor Craig Cates.

“It’s a scenic cruise in your car coming down, and it’s very important that they get it cleaned up,” he said.