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Paradise Waiting

TCI’s reopening an unqualified success.

By Jayne Baker ~ Photos By Paradise Photography

It’s the morning of July 22, 2020. Just after noon, American Airlines is due to fly in the first visitors to our shores since the borders closed four months prior.The mood on Providenciales is a muddled brew of optimism, relief and caution. Aware of the dire need to re-open the Turks & Caicos Islands’ economic lifeline, island businesses and tourism partners have worked tirelessly alongside local government to establish protocols in the hope that visitors would feel safe visiting our shores again, all the while protecting the health of the country, its residents and its valued visitors. 

Questions hung in the air as the plane descended.   Would the Islands see an overwhelming surge of cases by allowing the borders to open? Would tourists even come? While the need to open was vital, this small island nation didn’t want to be a cautionary tale of what could happen by allowing a stream of visitors back too soon. Limited hospital facilities meant that the health system could quickly become overwhelmed. The PDM Government at the time, led by Premier Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, alongside Governor Nigel Dakin, made it very clear:  Protocols could change quickly and they were ready to take swift action to shut things down again should it be necessary.

With the country somewhat holding its breath, AA 1279 touched down, complete with water-cannon fanfare, and with that the Turks & Caicos Islands were open for business.

Well, almost. A little more than a week after opening, the TCI found itself in full-on preparation for a possible visit by Hurricane Isaias. Thankfully the storm brushed by to the south, but the irony of opening the airport only to have Mother Nature close it down again a few days later seemed apropos for 2020. As the tropical cyclone moved off, the airport again re-opened and with it the economic lifeline—tourist arrivals. 

The Turks & Caicos Islands are ready, willing and able to receive visitors again—and they are flocking to these beautiful shores!

In recent years, visitor arrivals (by air) to Turks & Caicos have been steadily increasing, growing from 416,000 in 2018 to 486,000 in 2019. 2020 had the makings of a bumper crop. For the months of January and February 2020, air arrivals totaled 95,810 versus 84,653 for the same period in 2019. 

Then in March of 2020 the world stopped, and along with it the only meaningful source of income for the Turks & Caicos Islands Government and its residents. It was a never-before-seen crisis, challenging for any nation, and indeed the entire world, to navigate. Being a small island country whose only industry is tourism, combined with limited health care resources, the government had to respond quickly but not rashly. As borders around the world closed, the TCI Government came to the only sensible decision at their disposal—the country shuttered for business on March 23, 2020.

Initial lockdown restrictions for residents were strict —beaches were closed, non-essential travel on the roads was forbidden, exercise periods were specified, to name a few. Over time, internal restrictions lifted somewhat,  allowing for local businesses to reopen with capacity limitations. But without tourists, it was a mere drop in the ocean (albeit a beautiful turquoise one). Entry protocols for visitors were established in the hope that they were stringent enough to mitigate risk, while not so prohibitive they would discourage travelers.

Arrival numbers at first were predictably low. According to arrival statistics published by the Turks & Caicos Tourist Board, August 2020 saw 5,595 visitors versus 36,550 in the same period of 2019, representing about 15% of the previous year’s arrivals. As the months passed, that percentage has consistently increased.The months of September to November saw about 23% of comparative 2019 arrivals. In December that number jumped to 34%, seeing 17,241 visitors (versus 51,160 in December 2019).

The cogs of the economy were slowly grinding back to life as the page turned on a new year, welcoming in 2021. Not long into the new year however, following trends in the neighboring US (where approximately 83% of our tourists come from in a typical year), the Islands saw a concerning surge in COVID-19 cases. It was a stark reminder that although the Turks & Caicos had been managing the crisis well, it was not time to let their guard down. The virus still posed a threat to both the health of the Islanders and the economy itself. The government responded with fluctuating protocols, increasing restrictions internally as needed to help curb local transmission while still allowing tourists to come to our shores.

Amidst the surge, in February 2021, the Islands went through a local election and change of government.Changes in a ruling party can create an unsettled feeling at the best of times and questions lingered:  How would this new government respond? Would restrictions be tightened? Too much? Too little? One thing became quickly evident—the new PNP Government, led by Washington Misick, was as committed as its predecessor in its efforts to balance the management of the virus while still welcoming visitors.

The ready availability of vaccines was a large part of what made it possible to keep the country open for business. On January 7, 2021, courtesy of the UK Government, a British Airways plane landed with precious cargo—9,750 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. 

The roll-out was immediate and impressively efficient. While priority was initially given to those working in health care and essential services, the vaccine quickly became available to anyone wishing to receive it. Within a short time, local clinics and pharmacies were offering the vaccine with walk-in capabilities. Those receiving the vaccine consistently reported being impressed with the ease and professionalism of the process.

February 24, 2021 saw the arrival of another 23,400 Pfizer-BioNTech doses via a special British Airways cargo flight. That same plane carried CPAP machines and laboratory supplies to support automation of the PCR testing facility. A further 14,040 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and 300 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines arrived March 31, 2021. The result was that frontline tourism partners (resort, watersports, restaurant and spa staff) quickly become fully vaccinated, allowing an added layer of comfort and security to those visiting.

Combined with new data emerging daily regarding vaccine efficacy, the potential of a more normal tourism season seemed within reach. A recent Cleveland Clinic study shows that between January 1 and April 13, 2021, 99.75 % of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were not fully vaccinated. 

Statistics out of Bermuda in April 2021 also echo the importance and efficacy of the vaccine. Facing a surge of COVID-19 cases in late spring, the island nation reported that 88% of those admitted to hospital were unvaccinated, 11% were partially vaccinated (one shot) and 1% had both shots but had not yet reached the two week mark when a person is considered fully protected. But perhaps the most important statistic is that there were ZERO cases of a fully vaccinated person being hospitalized.

Like most countries, the vaccination surge in Turks & Caicos slowed as time went on and the TCI Government put considerable time and resources into outreach to the communities where vaccine hesitancy was most prevalent. Educational campaigns as well as a community mobile vaccine unit have helped to increase the numbers of vaccinations amongst those that may have otherwise continued to live in fear and misinformation. At time of writing (May 2021) it’s estimated that approximately 56% of the population is vaccinated. 

If there is a silver lining to be found in navigating the pandemic, it may be that local hospital facilities have been improved throughout the crisis. Hospital bed capacity has increased, a National Laboratory now exists, as well as the capability to generate oxygen at both Grand Turk and Providenciales hospitals (versus using filled cylinders only), meaning they have no fear of running out of oxygen. These improvements, alongside vaccinations and continued protocols, means the tourist season ahead looks hopeful.

Island businesses echo that optimism. A local hotelier reports that bookings for the 2021/22 season are not only “back to normal” but have the potential to be record breaking. An important factor in making that happen was that resorts and health care facilities quickly stepped up to provide the required COVID-10 antigen tests for US visitors returning home. The establishment of convenient and inexpensive testing was another component in making the destination a viable and safe choice for travelers.

Other small businesses such as restaurants, watersports operators and spas report a similar promising outlook, seeing pre-pandemic numbers or better for the future. The local real estate sector is reporting record sales.  

With all of this hopeful news, it’s an important note that the cruise ship industry worldwide has been decimated through the pandemic. In 2019, Grand Turk welcomed 359 cruise ships, bringing with them 1,111,818 visitors and the associated income for the island’s residents through jobs and small business opportunities. The year 2020 saw only 69 cruise ship arrivals—representing a little over 200,000 visitors. 2021 to date has seen zero. The current estimate is that the industry won’t resume until October 2021. So, while the island of Providenciales is rebounding,  Grand Turk and some of the sister islands are still facing struggles.

Through it all the Turks & Caicos Tourist Board has been working tirelessly with a new public relations firm to promote the destination in feeder markets. The portal for visitors to receive their travel authorization, found at (www.turksandcaicostourism.com) was rolled out seamlessly and response time is generally quick and easy to receive the necessary approval to travel. The TCI Government, even through a change of administration, has proven its ability to manage a never-before-encountered pandemic scenario while keeping the health of both the Islands and its economy paramount. Their focus appears to have remained unchanged throughout the year:  Make good decisions with the best information at hand, be ready to adapt, and tell the world that Turks & Caicos is ready to welcome you. 

And that message appears to have been received, loud and clear. A look at popular social media sites for Turks & Caicos backs this up, providing the best source of testimonials to the Islands’ recovery—its visitors. Recent tourists consistently remark how easy it is to travel here, and how impressed they are with local adherence to COVID-19 protocols. Every now and then, questions pop up on the forums such as, “Is it safe to visit? Should I worry about traveling?” They are inevitably met with a chorus of island praises but perhaps one traveler said it best recently: “I just returned from a week stay, and the people were as welcoming as the gorgeous turquoise waters and white sand beaches. I can’t wait to go back. If you’re considering a trip, don’t hesitate for a moment.Book it now.”  Paradise is waiting.



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On the Cover

Agile LeVin—photographer, explorer and chronicler of everything TCI on his website www.visittci.com—took this drone photo of the multi-textured wetlands of West Caicos. He was part of the expedition that investigated the site of the historic pirate attack in the area. For more information and photos, go to page 48.

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