Who Gets a Piece of Paradise

Investigating the perils of expanding tourism.

By Ben Stubenberg

Legend has it that the notorious female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read hid out in the sheltered coves of the Caicos Cays after raiding passing ships. The protective barrier reef provided a tranquil refuge after a stressful day of sword fights and cannons blazing. The turquoise waters gently lapping the long sandy beaches surely helped them unwind before dividing up the loot. For a while, this tropical paradise was their secret sanctuary at the tail end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

Today, 300 years later, the challenge of finding a paradise hideaway remains as alluring as ever. Just like Anne and Mary, modern visitors walk the same beautiful beaches and plunge into the same dazzling sea. They too have discovered a tropical nirvana where they can relax and recharge while leaving the pressures of the world behind.

Unlike the pirates who kept this paradise to themselves, TCI has been phenomenally successful at selling these Islands—notably Providenciales—as a high-end tourism destination with plenty of luxury condos, big villas, and a couple of private jet terminals. Treasures that any pirate would envy! But success spawns its own woes and comes at a steep cost that should give pause to the quest for relentless development and ever-more tourists.

Rapid evolution

An aerial view of Grace Bay shows the extensive development that has taken place over the past two decades.

In the 1980s, well before tourists arrived, Providenciales (Provo) was a sparsely populated island with around 1,000 people, far less than Grand Turk, North Caicos, and South Caicos. Residents living in the small settlements of Five Cays, Kew Town, and Blue Hills depended largely on fishing and boat building for their livelihood. Now, 40 years later, Provo’s population has exploded to an estimated 40,000, and just about everyone depends on tourism, directly or indirectly.

In fact, Provo sees around ten times as many tourists as the number of residents every year, one of the highest tourist-to-resident ratios in the world. The island’s journey from the tranquility of near-subsistence living to one of the most sought-after vacation and property investment spots on the planet has at once been highly lucrative for some and decidedly disruptive for others.

Tourism’s boom also brought a sharp influx of people from abroad to live here—expatriates mainly from North America and the UK, as well as migrants from nearby island nations, especially Haiti. Immigration is a natural consequence of prosperity and can enhance society by bringing needed labor and through cultural exchange. But a flood of newcomers to a small island can also overwhelm, widen the gulf between rich and poor, and fray the social fabric, as has also happened.

As property prices soar and wages fail to keep pace with the cost of living, the sense among Turks & Caicos Islanders of being squeezed out has become ever more acute and vexing. At the same time, TCI’s natural treasures, particularly the coral reefs, have become increasingly vulnerable, partly due to climate change, partly because of too many people.

Overshadowing these simmering concerns is an apprehension that ceaseless tourism and building expansion is diminishing Provo’s relaxed vibe and uncluttered beaches—attributes that made it a luxury destination of choice.

Indeed, the cyclical trajectory of tourist development and the impact on native populations worldwide has been well documented. What is happening in Provo is, in fact, a global phenomena in places where tourism dominates the economy—with similar ominous patterns.

Life cycle of a tourist destination

The pristine East Caicos shoreline represents what the Islands looked like before tourism development.

In 1980, a geography professor at the University of Western Ontario, Richard Butler, PhD, developed a model to study the life cycle of tourism. Referred to as the Tourism Area Life Cycle (TALC), the model has become one of the most widely used conceptual frameworks in tourism research. TALC identifies six or seven predictable stages that a resort destination goes through regardless of location. It is worth examining the elements of TALC, which have held up remarkably well over the decades, to see where TCI currently fits into the cycle and what to anticipate.

The first stage is “Exploration.” That is when a place might see a only few adventurous travelers pass through. They are not really tourists, but explorers looking for an unspoiled, untouched paradise.

The second stage is “Involvement.” This transpires when a destination starts to receive more visitors and accommodates them with small inns and cafés and may offer a few local activities.

The third stage is “Development.” More tourist facilities are built to accommodate the additional tourists arriving. The place becomes recognized as a tourist destination.

The fourth stage is “Consolidation.” Large multinational companies move in to build bigger hotels to support growing numbers of tourists. This is also the phase when tensions begin to emerge in the host population.

The fifth stage is “Stagnation.” Tourist numbers peak and environmental damage sets in. The resort destination becomes less fashionable and some of the hotels become old and run down.

The sixth stage is “Decline.” That takes place when the destination loses its luster. Fewer tourists arrive as they seek new places that are perceived to be more exciting and still “unspoiled.”

The seventh stage, if it happens, is “Rejuvenation.” Investment in new facilities and expansion of attractions potentially revives interest in the destination and reverses the decline.

Provo appears to be in the “Consolidation” stage near the top of the cycle, especially in view of several new high-end developments under construction and scheduled to open in 2024/2025. That is both a testament to the attraction of Provo as an inviting destination but also a warning that development might be reaching a peak that could lead to the stagnation phase. If the TALC model holds true, an urgent question arises: How does Provo prevent succumbing to the fate of other resort destinations whose cycles started much earlier?

Troubling scenario

Successive TCI governments have rightly put in place policies from the beginning that promoted Provo as a low density, exclusive destination that maximized tourism revenue. That strategy set TCI apart from mass markets where lower revenue margins are recouped through much higher numbers of visitors. TCI’s focus on luxury clientele also set a higher bar for expectations that, so far, Provo and all of TCI have been able to deliver on.

However, if Provo is no longer seen as special or unique or worth the luxury price due to any number of factors—road and airport congestion, crowded beaches, crime, dying reefs, and competition from other islands in the Caribbean region—stagnation becomes more likely. That’s when the carrying capacity of the island reaches a tipping point and the magic wanes.

The direction of TCI tourism was the subject of study as far back as 2009 by Lehigh University professors John B. Gatewood Ph.D. and Catherine M. Cameron Ph.D. Entitled Belonger Perceptions of Tourism and its Impacts in the Turks & Caicos Islands, the study found that while Belongers (native Turks & Caicos Islanders) were generally positive about tourism, they also perceived some downsides. These included increased crime, rising costs, an influx of immigrant workers, and unevenness with respect to the distribution of financial benefits from tourism. In the past 14 years, it is safe to say these perceptions have only intensified.

David Bowen, former TCI Director of Culture and a fierce advocate for promoting local culture, compared accelerated development to the concept of fast food versus “Slow Food.” The Slow-Food alternative strives to preserve traditional cuisine, takes longer to prepare, and costs more. But it tastes much better and promotes small businesses rather than corporate giants. This kind of food is intended to be savored, not gulped. In the same way, Mr. Bowen believes, TCI should not allow itself to be overrun with high-rises and other developments that take away the special flavor that is TCI.

Extravagant development proposals that promise more tax revenue and more jobs look attractive, at least for the short term. But if development continues apace, one can envision a distressing scenario where too many resorts dissuade the higher spending and more discriminating tourists from vacationing here. That in turn could result in reduced revenue to address the very social and environmental concerns TCI is grappling with now.

Some may disagree with this cloudy outlook and point to high tourist satisfaction and return rates, which are indeed impressive. They might also note the brisk sales of luxury condos and townhouses yet-to-be-built based on little more than fanciful design renderings and vivid videos of fabulous views. As bright as new development appears today, it is imperative to anticipate the prospect, however unsettling, that Provo could slide into the ordinary, a beach resort town that resembles so many others that have opted for more big buildings over more open space.

Disrupting the cycle

In her compelling book, The Last Resort, author Sarah Stodola examines the rise and fall of tourist destinations around the world while delving into the darker aspects of beach resort culture. Drawing on Professor Butler’s tourism life cycle model, she exposes strangleholds of local economies, reckless construction, and erosion of beaches, among others painful realities of unfettered development.

Notably, Ms. Stodola calls attention to locals feeling squeezed out and tourists reminiscing about how much better the place used to be—a refrain heard here as well. But she also suggests that life cycles can be disrupted and offers a basket of remedies for rejuvenation, the most urgent and necessary being the imposition of limits on tourists and zoning restrictions. Ms. Stodola concludes, “Without deliberately imposed limitations, the overdevelopment always follows, and overdevelopment leads to decline.”

The Department of Coastal Resources held a week-long Sandals Foundation-sponsored workshop with Birds Caribbean in late October 2023.

It is not too late for Provo to break the cycle by weaning itself away from ceaseless expansion, starting with new regulations that halt or at least drastically slow resort construction. A window remains open to re-imagine a more inclusive model for tourism—one that prioritizes natural treasures over high-rises, one that ensures that the country’s well-being and way of life stays at the center of every decision.

At the 2023 Caribbean Tourism Organization “State of the Industry” conference held at Beaches Resort, TCI’s Minister of Tourism Hon. Josephine Connolly noted in her opening remarks that TCI is conducting the Caribbean’s first in-depth study of the entire tourism industry. In keeping with TCI’s commitment to sustainability, she affirmed TCI’s dedication to safeguard pristine beaches, lush landscapes, and vibrant culture for future generations.

At the same conference, keynote speaker Doug Lansky, a global tourism and travel expert, challenged stakeholders to find creative ways to incorporate sustainability into tourism operations. In an earlier interview, he colorfully summed up the problem of overdevelopment with another food analogy:

“What we need to do is to redefine what success is in tourism. If I ask people what is success, they just think more visitors than we had last year. That’s a failed metric. It’s like one scoop of ice cream is good, and two scoops, maybe three, you could say is better, but 34 scoops isn’t better. It just ends up on the sidewalk and gives you a stomachache. There’s a finite amount of space to get into the key attractions, to walk on the street without feeling like you are in Times Square, to lay on the beach in a reasonable way.”

TCI’s catchy slogan “Beautiful by Nature” certainly reflects the scenic charm of the Islands. What if those words could also invoke a deeper beauty that embraces the spirit of this exceptional archipelago? What if the blessings of luxury tourism could also be directly linked to protecting the environment and lifting up the most vulnerable in society—an approach that itself becomes the basis for enticing the cream of affluent visitors.

Multiple studies indicate that luxury travelers are prioritizing environmental and social sustainability when booking trips—a more fitting target market for TCI. A 2022 American Express Global Travel Trends Report notes that 81% of travelers want the money they spend while traveling to go back to the local community. According to a 2023 report by the International Luxury Hotel Association, “One of the most significant trends is a renewed interest in sustainable travel, as people become more aware of the impact of tourism on the environment and local communities.”

For TCI that means embracing a “Green Economy” that complements the spectacular beaches and turquoise water. This course of action requires a pivot away from unbridled development, but the reboot need not be expensive or even require a major transformation. Most of the infrastructure for expanded environmental programs and social responsibility is already in place.

Below are various possibilities for keeping and elevating TCI’s enchantment through minimal impact, ranging from the quick and easy to the bold and daring. While far from complete, these ideas can broaden TCI’s appeal to the discerning traveler—tourists who support and appreciate eco-friendly/environmental sustainability* initiatives and social responsibility programs and are willing to pay a premium. 

Small changes/big impact

Ban the sale of non-reef-safe sunscreens, specifically sunscreens containing harmful chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate, among the ingredients. Several tropical locations have already either prohibited their sale and distribution or banned them outright because of the damage to marine life, particularly coral reefs. These include Hawaii, Key West, Florida, Palau, US Virgin Islands, Aruba, Bonaire, and Mexico.

In TCI, several charter boat operators, such as Big Blue and Caicos Catalyst, already forbid non-reef-safe sunscreens on their boats and provide alternatives for their guests. In fact, TCI even has its own locally created reef-safe sunscreen, Wildflower, that is available for purchase, along with other mineral-based sunscreens such as Stream2Sea. Such a measure would immediately signal to every visitor that TCI takes protection of its marine life seriously and invite them to share in that goal.

Expand the parks next to the beaches, as well as add new ones in all the Islands. Improvements could include native plants and shady trees landscaped to form lovely gardens for locals and tourists to enjoy. Sculptures by local artists could be included to further enhance ambiance. Parks catch the eye and offer a place for convivial gatherings and reflection that enhance TCI’s tranquility.

Set up a daily open-air farmer’s market in Grace Bay modeled after the one in Kew Town. Both locals and tourists could take advantage of purchasing directly from local farmers that in turn could spur more farming in TCI. Tourists tend to delight in this kind of activity that facilitates greater interaction with locals, and 100% of the money spent remains in TCI.

Bolster eco-friendly activities

TCI already offers excellent scuba diving, snorkeling, bonefishing, and various tours around the Islands. Now, other exhilarating and eco-friendly excursions are springing up, notably birdwatching. TCI’s vibrant birdlife has long been known, but only to a few enthusiasts outside the country.

The TCI National Trust and Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR), in collaboration with UK, US, and Caribbean birdwatching organizations, have recently laid the foundation for expanding birdwatching throughout the Islands and begun training local guides. With scores of migratory birds stopping over on TCI’s wetlands, as well as year-around birds like flamingos, egrets, blue herons, and ospreys, TCI has plenty of potential for exciting experiences.

Guided tours of this kind enhance local employment opportunities, especially for the outer islands that have not benefited nearly enough from tourism, and can mature into a dependable revenue stream. Indeed, birdwatching, also known as “avitourism,” generates $17 billion just in trip-related expenses in the US alone. This kind of eco-tourism further diversifies TCI’s tourism services and markets the Islands as environmentally sensitive—precisely what many high-end tourists want in their destination.

One of TCI’s biggest proponents for a Green Economy based on diversified tourism is Levardo Talbot. Originally from Salt Cay, Mr. Talbot comes from a long line of local fishermen and boat builders who have passed down their knowledge and a love for TCI’s gifts of nature. In 2007, after working as a DECR conservation officer, he started his own sportsfishing charter company, Talbot Adventures, on Provo. More recently Mr. Talbot has stepped up his advocacy for improving the education of young people about TCI’s natural resources. In particular, he has emphasized TCI’s eco-tourism potential through the certification of nature guides, especially for birdwatching. He has even become a certified birdwatcher himself and is preparing a series of nature programs with opportunities for TCI youth.

Sports tourism

The clear, clean waters of the Turks & Caicos are the ideal place for serious swimmers to workout or train for competition.

TCI is widely known for being one of the best places on earth for the demanding and exciting sport of kiteboarding. Long Bay offers perfect conditions with steady onshore winds, a long sandy beach, and shallow waters. Beginners who learn the sport here, as well as seasoned kiteboarders, often plan their vacations around kiting and return year after year—and pay highly for the privilege. On the other side of the island, the very different ocean conditions of Grace Bay offer an equally lucrative opportunity to entice serious triathletes and master swimmers. Currently, very few serious swimmers travel to Provo or other islands specifically to work out or train for competition. The one exception is the Turks & Caicos “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim held on the last Saturday of June. (Disclosure: The author is the co-founder of the “Race for the Conch” and an advocate for the sport, as well as a swim instructor.) This international event draws more than 120 swimmers from the US and Canada who arrive with friends and family to savor the experience of swimming through the exquisite turquoise sea. With 70,000 masters swimmers and some 400,000 triathletes in the US and Canada, there is a huge market to tap into for year-round swim training. Most of them are in high income brackets who often plan their vacations around where they can swim.

It would not take much to encourage these athletes to vacation here. TCI would only need to specifically designate and mark-off a safe and boat-free swim zone running along the shore for a half kilometer. (The typical roped-off 200 yard swim areas in front of hotels are too short.) Just as important, a cordoned-off swim zone can benefit a fast- growing number of local competitive swimmers training for open water races.

Indeed, only a handful of places in the world have open water swim zones. Designating one here would give TCI swimmers a competitive advantage and add to its one-of-a-kind natural tourism environment with minimal impact. In time, TCI’s young swimmers could apply their skills to become swim instructors and coaches, thus further diversifying employment opportunities.

Go bold with global clout

TCI has long demonstrated a commitment to environmental guardianship with 11 national parks, 11 nature reserves, and 4 sanctuaries. These protected areas cover 174 square miles (451 square km) of land and ocean. In addition to multiple bird species, the parks also protect endangered iguanas and threatened marine species, most prominently the humpback whale.

During the winter months of January through March, hundreds of humpback whales arrive in the warm waters of TCI to calve and mate before making the long journey back north to the east coasts of the US, Canada, and Greenland. During their tropical sojourn, tourists have the privilege to view these giant cetaceans in the wild and even experience in-water encounters if guides determine that conditions are safe and appropriate.

As with birdwatching guides, the DECR is working to implement a Wildlife Tourism Accreditation program that would include marine mammal interaction protocol. Well-trained guides could heighten the visitor experience for whale-watching (as well as other wildlife activities) and further raise TCI’s profile as an international environmental protection leader.

TCI could consider taking another step by limiting the number of visitors who can watch the whales and charging for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, somewhat like a safari tour in game parks that is thrilling as well as educational. The revenue brought in could be applied to additional protection measures for all of TCI’s natural resources. At the same time, restricting the number of whale-watching tourists would augment the uniqueness of the attraction while leaving the whales more to themselves.

One ambitious TCI initiative already underway is to designate East Caicos as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. An act of this magnitude would make the largest and least disturbed of the country’s islands a crown jewel of TCI environmental stewardship. Presently, only a handful of explorers visit East Caicos, and they are conscious of never leaving a footprint of their presence behind.

In preparation for the establishment of a World Heritage Site, the TCI National Trust is engaging the local communities in neighboring islands Middle Caicos and South Caicos to learn about and take into account their views. In particular, the traditions of local fishermen who have fished off the banks of East Caicos for two centuries need to be protected. As a World Heritage Site, all resort development plans would be taken off the table to ensure East Caicos remains pristine. Should that happen, access to the island’s dry tropical wilderness would likely be limited to small groups with trained and certified guides.

Such restricted access could become a distinctive experience for eco-tourists who value protecting unspoiled places. Brazil, among other countries, has put in place strict regulations to protect certain offshore islands from any development but still enable the local population to benefit. A case in point is Fernando de Noronha off Brazil’s Atlantic coast, where a limited number of tourists are allowed to visit for a fee.

Similarly, East Caicos could be promoted as an exclusive nature zone with empty beaches open to a few tourists and local groups for short stays with guides informing visitors about its rich history and fascinating flora and fauna. By closing East Caicos to any development forever, TCI can further ensure that Islanders are at the heart of tourism and retain control. Dr. Della Higgs, social scientist with the Turks & Caicos National Trust and one of the leaders in the effort stated, “Making East Caicos a World Heritage Site would keep the island in the hands of Turks (and Caicos) Islanders for generations and generations to come.”

These and other specialized activities already in play or about to launch will not in and of themselves create revenue streams on par with fine villa and condo bookings. But what they can do is set the tone and image for what TCI should be to avoid the scourge of overdevelopment, loss of heritage, and danger of stagnation and decline. If tourism is going to continue to be the wellspring of TCI prosperity, it must connect with the changing interests of luxury tourists who align with TCI values and want to spend their dollars here.

Promoting a more environmentally conscious TCI to high-end clients that focuses on luxury travel trends will require a shift in marketing emphasis that broadens the range of experiences beyond the beach. One local company ahead of the curve is Luxury Experiences, a top Destination Management Company (DMC) that caters to well-to-do clients. The founders/owners, Val and Susan Kalliecharan, have been planning highly customized itineraries, in addition to bookings, since 2008.

Recently, they have taken that service to a new level by interacting with the clients well before they arrive to determine what they might be interested in. Luxury Experiences starts by surveying clients to determine their “travel personality”—what they enjoyed doing on other vacations and what they might want to see and do in TCI. At the same time, Luxury Experiences introduces the clients to uncommon, off-the-beaten-path, island attractions.

The Kalliecharans then match clients with the appropriate operators/guides/instructors to give them a feel for what to expect. Sometimes these high-end clients just want to book a nice condo, resort/suite, or villa for quiet beach time, but more often they also want to explore, indulge in a special experience, or plan for a special moment. These could range from snorkeling over a field of starfish in South Caicos to a birthday party for kids that includes a visit by a mermaid. In this sense, Luxury Experiences promotes TCI as a destination with exciting and environmentally sustainable possibilities—ever mindful that these visitors choose to come here because it offers a special ambiance that also connects them with the Islands.

Cap off with social responsibility

Tourism has, of course, created jobs and raised money through room and activity taxes, as well as import duties, to fund government programs favorable to TCI residents. But more can be done to alleviate the struggles of the most vulnerable residents by engaging the enterprises that benefit most from TCI’s high-end tourism to contribute directly to social responsibility projects.

Specifically, resorts, villas, real estate agencies, and law firms grossing over a certain amount could be required to earmark 1% of their gross revenue for selected non-profit charities serving the TCI community. As an alternative, the stamp duty on property sales over $1 million, for example, could be increased from 10% to 11% with that extra 1% going to charities. These would include Provo Children’s Home, Ashley Learning Centre, Food for Thought, Footsteps4Good, Red Cross, Project Inclusion Turks & Caicos, the Edward C. Gartland Youth Centre, and the Reef Fund, among others. These and similar non-profits are serving urgent needs of the community and have an outstanding record of achievement. Notwithstanding the increase in development and tourist arrivals, however, most still struggle to pay their bills, thus limiting their effectiveness and reach.

A proposal of this nature need not be a tough sell. Almost all large (and small) TCI companies already give to local charities, many quite generously. However, charities with the most intensive missions to offer a safe haven for children or care for the mentally and physically challenged require consistent funding they can depend on. A similar case can be made for more resources to support public education, particularly tech classes. Tying revenue from luxury tourism or high-end property sales directly to social responsibility initiatives also has the notable advantage of influencing vacation decision making.

More tourists want to feel they have made a positive and visible impact on the place they are visiting. Promoting TCI as socially responsible through tourism is another compelling way to set it apart as a destination for tourists who share in the mission to lift up the community.

One thing is clear: TCI should not remain on the same endless path of development. TCI cannot take the risk of losing its soul to over-tourism should a reckoning come due. It’s time to question the current direction and reflect on how best to reorient tourism to preserve the natural beauty and revolve around the people and culture of these Islands. A number of promising initiatives and possibilities give rise to hope, but disquieting signs of excess should stir a foreboding in us all.

Ben Stubenberg is a story teller who writes regularly for Times of the Islands. He also teaches swimming and co-founded the vacation adventure company Caicu Naniki and the annual international swim competition, “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim. His articles on TCI and Caribbean history and current events, as well as comments on tourism,  development, wealth, poverty, hope, and resilience can be found on his website BenStubenberg.com.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography (myparadisephoto.com) created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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