A Warm Welcome

Belongers’ views on tourism revealed in study.

By Catherine M. Cameron, Cedar Crest College and John B. Gatewood, Lehigh University

“Belongers” is the term given to Turks & Caicos Islands citizens, most of whom are descendants of the African slaves brought to the country in the 1600 and 1700s by Bermudian salt rakers and British Loyalists to work the salt ponds and cotton plantations, respectively. Anyone who has spent time in conversation with one of the 9,000 “natives” knows that they tend towards strong views about their beloved country.
What do Belongers think about the annual influx of nearly 300,000 visitors to the Turks & Caicos Islands? This is the intriguing question we wanted to answer in research conducted during the summers of 2006 and 2007. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this was the first full-scale survey about how Turks & Caicos Islanders view tourism and its impacts on their lives and country.

In the field of tourism studies, research typically focuses either on the flows of tourism dollars through a local economy or on the motivations and preferences of the tourists themselves. Surprisingly few studies have been done to assess how local residents feel about the influx of tourists and the consequences of tourism on their lives. This is unfortunate since, as many tourist destinations have learned, the support of local people is essential in making a tourism program successful for the long term.

TCI visitors are drawn to pristine Grace Bay Beach

TCI visitors are drawn to pristine Grace Bay Beach

We first visited TCI in 2004, when we stayed at the School for Field Studies in South Caicos. From what we learned during that first trip and a subsequent visit during the summer of 2005 to Providenciales and Grand Turk, the Islands struck us as an ideal place to conduct tourism research for several reasons. Firstly, the tourism industry here is comparatively new, such that residents’ perceptions of and opinions about tourism might still be in a formative stage. Secondly, the country’s economy is highly dependent on tourism, which makes the research we had in mind relevant to people living in the country. And, because the different islands — Providenciales, North Caicos, Middle Caicos, South Caicos, Grand Turk, and Salt Cay — vary so much with respect to their degree of touristic developments, the country provides naturally-occurring contrasts, which are important to testing some hypotheses that have been put forth in academic literature on tourism.
Our research was carried out in two phases. Phase I involved in-depth interviews with about 30 people who were chosen to represent the potential diversity of perspectives on tourism. These interviews were conducted over six weeks in the summer of 2006. Phase II, a more complicated procedure, was a large-scale survey of up to 300 people across six of the Islands. The questionnaire was developed from the personal interviews, and the survey itself was done during the summer months of 2007.
The problem of generating a randomly-selected list of potential respondents for the survey was resolved by Ms. Desiree Adams, a tourism assistant in government, who suggested we use the “Electors Register” lists that broke down the population into voter districts for each island. This list provided the framework from which a smaller sample of names could be randomly drawn to make the survey representative of the whole country. The questionnaire covered many issues about the impact of tourism. In addition to questions about Belongers’ impressions of tourists and tourism work, there were many on the impacts of tourism on the Islands’ culture, physical habitat, and economy. We knew the survey work would take a lot of effort and time, so we planned ahead to hire local Research Assistants (RAs). The advertisements drew a strong response, and we picked a handful of recommended people, some of whom were at the Turks & Caicos Community College, universities abroad, or from the business world.
On June 1, 2007, John arrived and held training sessions for the RAs: Beatrice Burton, Olivia Delancy, Dale Henry, Robyn Hinds, Natishka Lightbourne, and Chrishanne Swann. They were each assigned a list of people to contact. During the training session, they were shown how to use the lists and how to fill out the forms. They were also the first eyes to go over the questionnaire to look for ambiguous or poorly worded questions. With their help, the questionnaire was put into its final form, and the Tourist Board kindly photocopied the requisite number.
With the training over, the RAs began their work of contacting respondents and having them fill out the survey form. Often, they had to make special arrangements to meet people at a home or business. Each week, the RAs dropped off their completed forms to our home office. Two American undergraduates from Lehigh University, Sarah Smith and Christina Stegura, called all the respondents to thank them for their participation and, in some cases, to get information missing on the questionnaires.
We did the survey work in South Caicos ourselves. The District Commissioner, Ms. Amber Thomas, kindly offered us a room to meet with our respondents. It was a good week for us in South Caicos for we completed our assigned number of surveys and renewed some old acquaintances. Big South was the first place we had visited some years ago.
By the end of July 2007, almost all the surveys had been done. About 30 additional forms from one district in Grand Turk were completed later in the fall. The final sample was 277 completed forms from six islands. The local RAs did a tremendous job under difficult circumstances, and, in the end, they came through for us. We celebrated with a “victory party” shortly before our departure on July 31.

What does tourism bring to mind?
We begin with a basic question. Who were these 277 randomly selected Belongers residing on six of the Islands we surveyed? Most (85%) were “born Belongers;” the rest were naturalized. There were more female than male respondents (58% compared to 41% male). In terms of background, half were married, and half were single, divorced, or widowed. They had an average of 2.75 children. About half were 40 years or older; the rest were late teens to their thirties. About a third of the group worked in a tourism-related field although this figure was higher for family and friends.
It comes as no surprise that Turks & Caicos Islanders are great travelers: over 90% said they travel abroad at least once a year. The most frequently cited destination is Florida or other parts of the US, followed by other Caribbean islands, Canada, the UK, and Europe. Though cosmopolitan, Belongers indicate they have great attachment to Turks & Caicos and close to two-thirds said they knew a great deal about island history and culture. Is tourism on people’s minds? The survey suggests it is a hot topic. People said they get most their news and information from the media: newspapers, TV, and radio.
Do Belongers feel they derive a great deal of financial benefit from tourism? Surprisingly, only 28% of the sample said they do, personally. People attributed more benefit to others — about a third said others profited more than they did. This number grew when they answered for their own island of residence and the country as a whole.
Though many people (86%) live near tourism areas, a factor that other researchers say may prompt people to dislike tourism and tourists, Belongers rate their encounters with tourists fairly positively, finding them friendly and polite and generally interested in the people and the local culture. Though many tourists expect first class treatment, residents generally say visitors tend to respect local rules and customs. The top five celebrity tourists named were Michael Jordan, Bruce Willis, Shaquille O’Neal, Will Smith, and Oprah Winfrey. Local residents believe that tourists are drawn to Turks & Caicos by a combination of factors — the unspoiled beaches and water sports, the friendliness of the local people, a low crime rate, along with the laid-back lifestyle of the Islanders.

Attitudes about economic impacts
Belongers overwhelmingly feel that tourism has been good for Turks & Caicos. It is seen as the “engine” of the economy and necessary for the country, although not without some criticisms. There is very strong agreement that the standard of living has gone up (86% agree) and that there is now a much greater choice of goods and services. Slightly fewer agree that there are better public services (59%) and more scholarships for study abroad (57%).
There is, also, a strong consensus (75%) that the government needs to diversify the country’s economic foundation, even though many people (54%) agree that tourism is the main means to develop the economy. Again, there is strong agreement (86%) that each island should try to develop something different from the others. Many people see the advantage of developing heritage attractions for the tourist market: 83% agree that private business and public agencies should develop more of these kinds of amenities.
People tend to agree that development has led to the creation of a greater variety of jobs, particularly those in the tourism sector (66%). There is less agreement that these jobs are evenly spread out across the Islands, confirming general comments we heard that people have to migrate to Providenciales or Grand Turk for work. While people do see opportunities in tourism work, many indicate that Belongers still prefer the security of government jobs or work in the private sector.
There is a split on whether tourism work is perceived as well-paying: over a third think it is, a third doesn’t, and the rest are in the neutral camp. A charge that is often made in the tourism literature is that tourism work is likened to being a servant. Although many people see tourism work as a kind of “game” you play, close to 50% do not view it as being servant-like. Obviously, this has ramifications for tourism education.
In a more critical take on tourism work, people voiced some concerns about opportunities. As for the ease of getting loans for business start-ups, there is a split: 45% say they can get loans without too much trouble, while over a third say it is difficult to get loans. Over half the sample feels that foreign applicants get preference for tourism jobs, and a third feel that local people are not treated fairly in their applications. There seems to be some ambivalence about who benefits from tourism: there is fairly strong agreement that only some benefit (about 60% say this) and that not everyone is getting a piece of the tourism pie (64% agree). Many people see some problems of being included in the benefits of tourism.
In the first year’s interviews, we often heard comments about how quickly the country was changing and how difficult it was for many people to adapt to this change. The survey results confirmed this view to some extent: 44% of the sample feels that the country is changing too quickly. Signaling some distress, there is significant agreement (58%) that people think that tourism has not been growing in a regulated way, and there is strong consensus that too many outside workers have entered the country (about 73% agree) such that the population growth is straining the local school system. These results show that many people feel that development is out-pacing their ability to adapt and keep up. This is something to be taken seriously by officials.
People’s optimism on many topics comes through, but is tempered by doubts and fears. People feel that tourism is an essential mode of development for the country, now and into the future, and many see that it will result in an improved future for Belongers. Most people see no limits to further tourism development and think it is sustainable, but more than a third think that tourism is at a cross-road where things may go wrong. Furthermore, 58% see tourism as a fragile industry possibly ruined by small effects.

Attitudes about social impacts
Echoing what was heard in the long interviews in 2006, respondents agree that tourism has broadened the outlook of local people and put the country on the world map. Previously, we had heard that Islanders living abroad are pleased that they less frequently have to explain where Turks & Caicos is. About three quarters of the sample credit tourism and development for allowing Belongers to live and work in the country whereas, until recently, many would have had to migrate for work. They also credit tourism’s effect in improving public services (police and medical). However, 42% say they feel somewhat restricted now in the places they can go for work or fun.
In the first year, we often heard that some people were very concerned about the effect of tourists and outside workers on local people’s social and moral values and community bonds. Some felt that people were becoming more materialistic, greedy, and less connected with others. Often, American TV was blamed more than the effect of tourism. But, in the survey, there is some ambivalence about whether tourism is having significantly negative social effects, and there no strong evidence that people feel that tourism is breaking down community ties. Around half of the sample disagree that the tourism industry is responsible for making people more selfish and greedy, making them less caring, and breaking down people’s sense of community. Though many stayed in the “neutral camp” on this point, it should be said that anywhere from 22% to 33% are concerned about tourism’s effect on social and community relations.
The newspapers report on social pathologies such as drug use, crime, and family violence. People in our sample are of two minds about associating tourism with drug use, increased alcoholism and family violence, and bad morals. A large segment (42%) links tourism and drug use, but 47% do not think that it has impacted social problems such as alcoholism, violence, and divorce. There are those, however, who think tourism has contributed to worsening social problems. A third or less agrees that tourism has negatively affected the morals of most people. Of great concern is the crime rate and illegal immigration: 44% of the sample thinks that tourism is impacting the crime rate and 54% think tourism is responsible for the increase in illegal immigration.
Optimistically, some people (44%) feel that tourism may revive native culture and people’s sense of group identity (54%). Yet, a quarter of the sample is concerned that Belonger culture will disappear and that people will lose their island identity. This concern is something to watch.

Attitudes about environmental impacts
Polly Patullo’s book, Last Resorts, is an indictment of the environmental and social effects of tourism in the Caribbean. She reviews the policies and practices that have led to serious impacts on the islands of the region, noting that when the reefs are dead, the water fouled, and the marine life depleted, the tourists pick up and go elsewhere. She emphasizes how important it is for countries to develop a good sustainable tourism policy. With her book in mind, we wondered how Belongers would assess the environmental impact of the new tourism industry on the physical place.
With respect to environmental impacts, Belongers see a number of positive outcomes. They think the growth of tourism has led to more preservation of historic sites and buildings, better maintenance of roads and public places, and better conservation practices, with slightly fewer agreeing that there are more laws against building in protected areas. Many also believe that tourism has prompted greater interest in the natural environment. In part, this is explained by the very good educational programs of the DECR, numerous articles in Times of the Islands on flora, fauna, and conservation practices, and, very simply, by the admiration that tourists have for the Islands.
The perceived downside of tourism growth is increased traffic and congestion, resort construction in delicate areas, and more problems with garbage and pollution, although equal numbers think there is better management of waste and pollution. While reports show that tourism has degraded reefs and beaches to some extent, half the sample does not see this as a problem. With respect to people’s health and the change in diet in recent years, about 41% think that this has improved even though people are eating less of the Islands’ traditional diet.
In another section of the questionnaire, we asked other questions about environmental effects. Over half of the sample feel that there needs to be legislative controls of coastal areas development projects such as marinas, reef cuts, cruise terminals, canals, and resorts and that same percentage feel there are not enough controls at the moment. Almost equal numbers disagree on whether there looms the potential for a future environmental crisis of some sort: 35% think this is unlikely, while 33% think it is and the rest are neutral. But, general optimism seems to prevail for 61% agree there is the potential for better environmental conservation practices for the future.

Looking back, looking ahead
We decided another way to get at people’s understanding of tourism’s impacts was to ask them to compare things as they were a decade ago with now, then to look ahead and imagine life in ten years as compared to now. When Belongers compare and evaluate various factors concerning quality of life and community issues between today and ten years ago, the general perception is that, with one exception (social problems), life is much better. For the most part, the sample agrees that many things have improved in the past decade and are cheerily optimistic that this will continue to be the case ten years hence. These responses mirror many of the positive responses seen earlier in the “impacts” section.
What is specifically better today than ten years ago? Belongers say that most things are better, especially with respect to the (a) standard of living; (b) educational and job opportunities; (c) ease of travel; and, (d) overall quality of life. Although still weighing in on the “better” side, there is slightly less agreement about entertaining things to do, pride in country, sense of community, spiritual/moral values, and public health. The one factor that is perceived as worse now than in the past is in the area of social problems: 60% of the sample feel that crime, drug use, and domestic violence is worse now that it was ten years ago. This shows agreement with a figure mentioned before, but is even higher.
What do Belongers feel about the future? The trend of perceived improvement in quality of life and community continues when people report on how they feel about things in ten years. In addition to the improvements noted before, they say they expect improvements in entertainment, pride in country, public health, sense of community, and spiritual/moral values. However, the respondents do remain concerned about social problems: 52% expect things to worsen, while 32% think social problems may actually improve. The others expect no change.

Key findings and recommendations
Looking at the survey as a whole and not just responses to particular questions, the key findings survey can be summarized as follows.
• As of 2007, Belongers are generally positive about tourism and the impacts it is having on their lives, and they have a generally positive view of the tourists who visit their country.
• Belongers perceive some downsides to tourism, such as rising costs, increased crime, an influx of immigrant workers, and unevenness with respect to the distribution of financial benefits from tourism.
• Belongers want more tourism, and especially more historic/cultural tourism.
• Belongers show a high degree of altruism with respect to tourism. Most do not receive much direct financial benefit, but they are just as positive about tourism as those who are benefitting directly.
• Demographic-behavioural variables account for little of the variations in Belonger attitudes toward tourism. The exception is island of residence. Residents of the former salt-producing islands (South Caicos, Grand Turk, Salt Cay) tend to be more positive about tourism, generally, than residents of the other islands (Providenciales, North Caicos, Middle Caicos).
• Although there is a statistical convergence of opinions with respect to many topics, there are also systematically different perspectives (sub-cultural viewpoints) with respect to other aspects of tourism.
• The range of overall assessments regarding tourism is truncated, extending from extremely positive to only mildly negative. There are no genuinely negative assessments.
Based on the survey’s findings, we recommend the following actions as a means to maintaining and nourishing the tourism industry in the Turks & Caicos Islands into the future.
• Keep tourism within environmentally sustainable limits.
• Develop suitable tourism products for each island, especially more historic/cultural sites and attractions.
• Facilitate Belonger participation in the new tourism economy by providing additional tourism education, training, and outreach activities; keeping Belongers informed of and involved in tourism planning; and taking steps to ensure that tourism revenues are more equitably distributed.
• Continue to monitor, on a regular basis, Belonger attitudes toward tourism.

Lehigh University tourism study survey team

Lehigh University tourism study survey team

Print copies of the full report, “Belonger Perceptions of Tourism and its Impacts in the Turks and Caicos Islands,” are available at the TCI public libraries, secondary schools, community colleges, and various public agencies. It will also be available online through the Government Information System. We hope the report is of interest and is useful to the people of the Turks & Caicos Islands. We are most grateful to the many people who made this research possible, particularly the 30 people we interviewed initially and the 277 respondents who completed the survey. Thank you!

1 Comment

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Cynthia Miner
Nov 8, 2018 15:57

I have considerable information that I would like to add to your study. This is based on a lengty visit I made to the Islands many Years ago. As a clinical psychologist with some training in social psychology I was very taken by the social, political, economical, and spiritual lives of the residents. If your work upholds the best interests of the “Belongers” I can lend much insight as to the impact of tourism onthe quality of life of these wonderful people. Please email me to set up a time we can talk.

Cynthia Miner, Psy.D.

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