How dependent is Turks and Caicos on tourism?
Population: 38,718. Annual visitors in 2019: 1.6 million.
Percentage of GDP related to tourism in 2019: 70.7.
Decline in visitation in 2020 as a result of the pandemic: 81%.
I visited the islands this month, and while there I had the opportunity to discuss the islands' Covid journey with its premier, C. Washington Misick.
The 70.7% of GDP related to tourism spend is not fully inclusive of tourism's impact, he said. It does not, for instance, include tourism-related construction.
The point is relevant. It's been 13 years since I last visited the islands, and I would not have recognized the Grace Bay coastline on Providenciales. And construction is still going strong: I was a guest of Beach Enclave, a company that opened another cluster of villas during the pandemic, and I toured another Beach Enclave site with yet more villas nearing completion.
A Ritz-Carlton opened in June. And the day after I arrived, Carnival Corp. committed to a $25 million expansion of the Grand Turk Cruise Center to improve the reception facilities and extend the dock to accommodate larger ships.
The majority of visitors to Turks and Caicos arrive on cruise ships, and port calls will not resume at Grand Turk (the only island with a cruise port) until Dec. 1. Nonetheless, the premier had some surprising news: "Through the end of August, we recorded our best 90 days for tourism performance. The best in our history, even pre-Covid."
Very surprising news, as this occurred in what is traditionally low season. And, indeed, though it's still low season, my flights in both directions were full. Upon departure, the airport was jammed beyond capacity -- I believe the phrase "a hot mess" would be a good descriptor of the scene, with long check-in lines, long security lines and a packed departure hall. (I found Skypass Caribbean's fast-track arrival and departure services, which bring you to the front of the queues and includes admission to a peaceful VIP lounge at departure, to be well worth the $145 for the service, inclusive of taxes).
If there is capital improvement money in government coffers, airport expansion should top the priority list.
Turks and Caicos premier C. Washington Misick Photo Credit: Anthony Prodis
I asked Misick to what he attributed this quick recovery. "The focus for all our decisions had to be the preservation of life and the preservation of livelihood," he began. "The economics were ignored at first because we believed that, without securing our health, the economics would suffer in the long term. And we could take that risk because we had significant cash reserves for a small country that we could draw down to support people."
A strict curfew was initially imposed, but like much of the world, the government tightened and relaxed restrictions as infection rates waxed and waned. The premier attributed much of the recent success to its aggressive support of vaccinations: 85% of the population has received at least one jab, and boosters are already widely available to qualifying residents, without age restrictions.
And immigration officers are serious about requiring that visitors be fully vaccinated, including those who might be arriving by cruise ship after the port reopens. Allowances will be made if someone cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons (with documentation reviewed by the government's chief medical officer), but no exception is made for religious considerations or other objections to vaccines.
Misick also attributes the islands' successful recovery to a good working relationship between the public and private sectors.
Resorts determined occupancy along government guidelines, but "all of the stakeholders worked together," Misick said. "Generally speaking, we didn't legislate from on high. And we made allowances for the resorts to permit essential staff to keep facilities operational and clean, despite curfews. Likewise, the resort community did a fantastic job in supporting their staffs, keeping a lot of them on the payroll. It was a community effort."
The premier, incidentally, is a tourism stakeholder, as well: Since he began living in the official residence, he lists his studio home on a vacation rental platform.
Despite the apparent resilience of its tourism economy, the pandemic resurfaced a long-term issue facing Turks and Caicos and all tourism-dependent economies. Tourism can be a fragile industry, susceptible to a range of interruptions in addition to pandemics: hurricanes and other natural disasters, terrorism, political unrest. While Turks and Caicos is not likely to experience the latter two directly, it is nonetheless subject to the impact of global events.
As a result, the premier said, the government is moving forward to diversify its economy, particularly as regards fisheries and agribusiness.
Generally speaking, the good news out of Turks and Caicos is good news for the Caribbean tourism reset, writ large. True, some islands still struggle with Covid fallout, but Turks and Caicos seems to have cracked the code and proven, if anyone doubted, that demand for the Caribbean will return as strong as ever.