Providenciales and its most popular beach, Grace Bay, has won numerous accolades, including Trip Advisor’s #1 Beach Destination in the world.
After limping through several gloomy years in the wake of the global financial crisis, worldwide tourism appears to be turning a corner. Global arrivals are on the upswing, topping 1 billion for the first time in history in 2012. Like farmers welcoming rain after a drought, international industry leaders are optimistic, if a bit tentative.
The story is somewhat different in the Turks and Caicos. Ralph Higgs, TCI director of tourism, describes the industry as “on the rebound,” but from a broader perspective, the lows here were never as bad as they were elsewhere.
With the bulk of its tourism-related economy still focused on Providenciales, and with the Turks and Caicos brand carefully aligned with the international luxury travel market in North America and the Eurozone over the years, TCI tourism avoided the worst of the global recession. Today, with the rest of the industry generally concentrating on recovery, TCI tourism is plotting a course toward a new phase of growth, outreach and heightened international awareness.
79% of visitors are from the United States
12% travel from Canada
While North American departures were among the hardest hit between 2007-09, Turks and Caicos weathered the storm by appealing to wealthy travelers who were less likely to put off their vacations as a cost-saving measure. With both the United States and Canada now in economic recovery, the picture is only improving. “We have not even begun to scratch the surface of the potential the North American market holds for us,” Higgs said.
In the interim, the nation’s tourism infrastructure has largely either improved or held its ground. Providenciales’ roads, medical facilities and telecommunications have been upgraded, and with a major runway extension already in place, the nation’s primary airport is currently expanding and modernizing its terminal. The Grand Turk Cruise Terminal has grown and a new visitors’ centre in Cockburn Town is built and awaiting investors.
But most importantly, the natural environment remains virtually untouched, protected by a functioning national parks system that ensures the abundance of marine life and keeps the beaches pristine.
“So those fundamentals being soundly in place, they are the bedrock on which Turks and Caicos tourism will grow and be sustained,” Higgs said. “I think the future is promising.”
Higgs said the pending construction of new hotels on Providenciales could not have come at a more important time in the country’s development cycle. The addition of a luxury European Plan (EP) hotel brand, including at least one hotel with convention facilities, helps diversify the tourism base, while the new resorts keep the country moving on the right track. The continued success of the restaurant scene is an important factor in establishing the EP market on Grace Bay, and each trend can now support the other.
In the meantime, the country has been reaching out to the South American travel market – particularly Brazil – while exploring new opportunities to attract Asian luxury travelers. The country recently received Approved Destination Status from the Chinese government.
But expanding the local tourism economy requires more than new facilities for day visitors on Grand Turk and resort travellers on Grace Bay. The family islands must be promoted as the gems they are, but also for what they can become, Higgs said. “Tourism growth in TCI must be done is such a way that the entire population benefits from it. That is the only way it is going to be sustainable and have longevity.”
In 2000, 151,372 visited the Turks and Caicos.
In 2011, visitors exceeded 1 million.
Higgs also cited a broader collaboration with the Turks and Caicos Hotel and Tourism Association as another recent development. Michel Neutelings, the association’s new president, sees similar benefits from an expanding partnership with the new government. “There’s a whole new chapter being written in the Turks and Caicos,” he said.
The association is working on four major projects: Creating a national skills bank for the hospitality industry; launching a privately owned hotel institute in consultation with the Turks and Caicos Community College, so as not to interfere with existing programs; producing a multimedia public relations campaign to reinforce the importance of tourism to the daily lives of islanders; and developing an ongoing program of motivational training.
Additionally, the association is committed to environmental protection, green energy production, and ideas that “help to make a better and more harmonious place,” Neutelings said.
The association hopes to take a more active role in developing and, if need be, funding the local tourism agenda, in part because the government has been coming through a period of austerity and its revenues limit the projects it can undertake.
There are currently approximately 3,500 room keys.
5,000 keys are expected by 2017.
With the country rebooting itself via a new government and a new constitution as the global recovery takes hold, Neutelings sees great potential for Turks and Caicos to get all sorts of things right – from livability to job training and an international reputation for quality service. And, all of that contributes to a priceless word-of-mouth brand for tourism here.
“To be more competitive compared to other destinations… it has to be a good living environment,”
Neutelings said. “We’re small enough to be able to (affect that kind of change). That’s the beauty of being a small destination.”