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How to travel gracefully during a pandemic.

By Jayne Baker ~ Photo By Marta Morton

As Caribbean nations start to loosen their border restrictions, the allure of near empty beaches and low hotel occupancy is calling to (masked) travelers. For some, it’s a return visit to a beloved home away from home—perhaps an island destination they have been coming to for years. For others, they are happy to visit new destinations that have been on their bucket lists.

Travelers who have returned to TCI post-COVID are rewarded with near-empty beaches.

One magical day not so long ago, our nation of the Turks & Caicos Islands opened its doors to visitors again. It felt exciting. We went to the airport to watch the first plane welcomed back with water cannon fanfare and were unexpectedly emotional. After months of feeling stagnant and uncertain, this little bit of forward motion felt healing, like something to celebrate, and we embraced it.

And truth be told, travelers have embraced it also. Those who have jumped on those early post-closure flights have been rewarded with near empty beaches, uncrowded restaurants and plenty of last minute tour availability. There is no better time to experience the Caribbean—reminiscent of the “unspoiled” era of times gone by.  

The TCI Government’s decision to close the country’s borders back on March 24, 2020 was made neither hastily or easily; nor was the decision to open up again, four months later, on July 22, 2020. As an island nation that is dependent on the single industry of tourism, government officials were aware that closing the Islands had serious financial implications for the country and its residents. But, mindful that our hospital capacity is limited and watching the numbers of hospitalizations soar in the neighboring United States (main source of our tourists), the only prudent choice was to close things down before the COVID-19 virus took hold here and threatened to overwhelm local medical facilities. 

The lockdown seemed dystopian at first to a nation of people that take pride in the relaxed, easy-going manner of the Caribbean culture. Beaches and marinas were closed. A 24 hour curfew was imposed but for exercise periods twice a day. Written exemptions were required from government to have permission to be on the road during curfew hours. While we had witnessed similar shutdowns around the world, there was a sense of disbelief that this new reality had reached our shores.

Gradually, over the four month period, restrictions eased internally and, slowly but surely, the economic gears of the Islands started to turn, albeit sluggishly. The mood amongst island residents was a muddy blend of unease and cautious optimism. If you were fortunate enough to make a little income, you tried to put it back into the economy by supporting other small businesses on island. For instance, if you ran a tour that day, you could perhaps add a take-out meal to your budget that week to help support a restaurant. The Islands were doing what they could to reconstruct the economy, one boat trip or restaurant meal at a time. But there was one giant building block missing—visitors. Without them, there was little to no demand for taxi fares, hotel workers, restaurant workers, excursions staff and all affiliated tourism business employees.  

Local businesses stepped up where they were able. A hotel group donated ventilators. Others provided a “staples program” for their workers, giving them a collection of food and household supplies. Some organized or worked with existing non-government organizations to provide food bank services and hot meals to those most affected. Like any small town, the community came together where it could to help each other weather this economic hurricane of sorts.  

But through it all, a big question hung over peoples’ heads. Island residents needed a date—when would the country open? When could we again start to count on visitors to fill our taxis, hotels, restaurants, spas and tour boats? 

The decision to open was no doubt debated at length in the halls of government during the period of closure. During that time, officials moved to improve hospital facilities to ensure extra beds were available and contingency plans were in place. But, how to balance the economic need to open the country with the best measures and protocols to mitigate risk, while not making it so prohibitive that it would discourage the return of tourists all together? These were uncharted waters to navigate and one can only imagine the discourse taking place behind closed doors. Rumors swirled around the Islands as to what the protocols would entail, and when (or if?) the Turks & Caicos would actually open. TCI Government kept their hand close, while no doubt keeping an eye on other Caribbean nations’ projected dates and entry requirements. 

When TCI Premier Hon. Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson announced that the country would re-open on July 22, there was a sense of relief and renewed purpose. Visitors were at first required to upload a COVID-19 negative PCR test within three days of arrival (this was quickly extended to a five-day window), and provide proof of medical insurance to the TCI Assured Portal at www.turksandcaicostourism.com to receive approval to board a plane to TCI. While these requirements posed challenges to potential visitors, it seemed an appropriate best effort to try and safeguard the health of the country. 

With a firm date on the horizon and entry requirements and procedures in place, island businesses could now focus on re-opening strategies and protocols to help protect our visitors, our residents and our economy. 

But that doesn’t mean anxiety disappeared. For island business owners, economic concerns are still paramount despite the TCI now being “open,” and the way forward is anything but clear and easy. Small businesses have accrued debt for close to half of the year and have likely used up any contingency funds. New realities like reduced business, the possibility that borders could close again, and concerns about the virus itself—all set against the backdrop of a complete cessation of income during some of our busiest months—makes the path ahead difficult to navigate.

Needless to say, these “uncertain times” will be with us for some time to come. The next six to eight months will see most small businesses trying to “get back to zero.” A common opinion seems to be that, by March 2021, a full year after the shutdown, businesses hope to be able to see the way forward more clearly. Until then the new normal is simply learning how to get by, one day at a time. 

With all of that said, there is a spirit of optimism beginning to permeate the country. Caribbean residents are no stranger to weathering meteorological and economic storms. There is a resiliency that runs through the community here, buoyed up by the faith that “this too shall pass.” There is a sense that things are beginning to heal and as income starts to trickle in, it’s a step in the right direction.

Early feedback from visitors is that the TCI is taking COVID-19 seriously. As hotels, restaurants and tourism businesses seek to strike that balance between implementing new health protocols while still providing the first-class, luxury experience that Turks & Caicos is known for, feedback from early tourists is overwhelmingly positive. A look at TripAdvisor reviews shows that so far, TCI businesses seem to be getting it right. Visitors feel protected without feeling that their high-end vacation experience is compromised. The hope is that visitors and residents alike continue to adhere to protocols to help protect the health of the country and the economy itself.

If you are reading this as a traveler, know this—as small island nations start to reopen, they will receive visitors with a grateful heart. Your arrival as a tourist is a sign that we are beginning to herald in an era that at least somewhat resembles the sense of normalcy we had six months ago. You—the visitor—represent hope and a sense of much-needed momentum. With that said, here are a couple of tips on “How to travel gracefully during a pandemic” and best support your favorite island destination and their businesses:

• Please respect protocols at your destination. Recognize that none of us love having to wear masks, not hug our returning friends, hand-sanitize 76 times a day, and so on. But remember that you will get on a plane in a week or so and return to your home and medical facilities. If COVID-19 hits the fan here, most island residents don’t have that option.

• If you’re able to, consider budgeting some of your vacation dollars to see where you can help. No amount is too small. Maybe it’s tipping your cab driver/waitstaff/guides a little extra than you normally would, recognizing that many are still working reduced hours as well as trying to catch up on months of having no income at all. Or perhaps it’s finding out how to support local NGOs that are helping to meet the needs of those that are food-insecure during this time.

• There is no obligation to help out financially as listed above. Know that island residents are happy to see you and grateful for the fact that you got on a plane and chose the Turks & Caicos Islands as your destination. Tourism dollars being injected again into the economy is exactly what is needed. Everyone appreciates your business. Just please don’t be the tourist that looks for “deals and discounts” from small business owners during these times. It’s understandable that everyone loves to save money where they can, but please recognize that most people on a tourism-driven island have literally had zero income for close to half of the year. Asking a small business operator to discount their product or service in order for you to choose them over another operator is disheartening.

• This is just a general, non-COVID-related PSA:  Please interact with your island destination with courtesy and the respect that you are a welcomed guest in their home. While there is a sense of freedom in wearing just a swimsuit, please notice that you will likely not see an island resident walking through town or shopping in a bathing suit. Run around all day long in a swimsuit at the beach or pool, but as a general rule, if you’re putting on a mask, put on a cover-up/shirt and shoes too.

• Please take the same generosity of spirit home with you. Support local, small businesses where you can. Respect protocols. Help others in whichever way you are able to. You’ll feel better for it and the world will hopefully heal more quickly.

At some point we will all look back on “these uncertain times” and know that they are a storm we weathered together, helping each other ride it out as best we could.

(Note:  Entry requirements to Turks & Caicos are likely to change and evolve over time. For the most current information, visit the TCI Assured Portal at www.turksandcaicostourism.com.

Jayne Baker has been a full time Caribbean resident for 23 years, spending the last 20 years in Turks & Caicos. She and her husband Mickey own and operate Flamingo Divers, a boutique dive operation specializing in small groups and personalized service. Jayne spends most of her days underwater, but when she’s on dry land you’re likely to find her engaged in creative writing pursuits or with her head buried in a book.

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