New Company, Old Roots

Island Mystique showcases the soul of TCI.

By Rachel Craft ~ Images Courtesy Island Mystique

“You’ve never experienced us like this before.”
That’s the slogan of TCI’s newest tour company, Island Mystique, which launched in late 2023. Island Mystique aims to be the Islands’ first culturally immersive tour company by inviting visitors to step out of their resorts and into the art, music, and history of the Turks & Caicos.

Entrepreneur Mary Forbes showcases her new tour company Island Mystique at TCI’s popular Thursday night Fish Fry held at Stubbs Diamond Plaza in Providenciales.

“The keyword for us is immersive,” said Mary Fulford, CEO and founder of Island Mystique. Her goal is for visitors to not only learn about local culture, but actively participate in it. That’s why Island Mystique offers a menu of interactive experiences led by local chefs, artists, and other experts. For example, “Turks Link Up” allows guests to paint something meaningful to the Islands while exploring its cultural significance—like the conch shell, which was historically used for communication. “Cook What You Catch” takes guests on a boat excursion to catch fish and learn about TCI’s fishing industry, then to a secluded beach to cook and eat lunch picnic-style. “Back in de Day” features historians sharing local folklore around a fire pit and incorporating traditional song and dance. For more in-depth experiences, Island Mystique offers customizable packages that incorporate several activities—like “Flavors of TCI,” which includes a foodie tour, cooking class, and four-course meal crafted by a private chef.

Fulford’s vision for Island Mystique grew out of a gap she noticed in TCI’s tourism industry. In 2021, while working at the Ritz-Carlton on Providenciales, she found guests frequently asking for local experiences—but there wasn’t much to give them. The closest thing is the Thursday night Fish Fry in The Bight, but this is only held once a week. Fulford saw a niche waiting to be filled. “We’re predominantly a country that only promotes sun, sea, and sand,” she said. “We’re not the only country with an amazing beach. What’s gonna give us a competitive edge?”

She hopes her company will help give TCI this edge by providing activities that shine a light on its unique culture, not just the beaches. She emphasized the importance of finding local experts—like a chef who practices traditional cooking methods, or an artist who learned to weave straw from her mother and grandmother. Fulford used conch ceviche as an example: It’s a popular local dish that you’ll find in any restaurant, even in the Ritz-Carlton, but “it’s not the same as when made by a local person.”

Island Mystique guests are introduced to authentic native dishes during a cooking class where items are purchased from the local Kewtown Farmers Market to be used in preparing the meal. Chef Melissa (at right) is explaining how to prepare the fish.

Filling this void in the tourism industry could help visitors get more out of their vacations, and even boost TCI’s economy in the long run—but Island Mystique’s mission goes deeper than that. As someone who was born and raised on the Islands, Fulford recognizes the challenge of preserving TCI’s precious culture. This culture is often hard to identify, even by locals, because the country’s long and tumultuous history has led to a fractured sense of identity. “Because we’re a melting pot of so many different nationalities,” Fulford says, “it kind of masks who we are.”

This melting pot has been brewing since at least the 700s, when the Islands were inhabited by the Arawakan-speaking Lucayan Taíno people. The Taíno grew to a population of some 40,000 across what are now the Turks & Caicos and the Bahamas, where they developed a sophisticated government system, cultivated dozens of crops, and built an extensive trade route network. All of this was lost around the turn of the 16th century, when European explorers arrived—along with new diseases and the slave trade—which together wiped out the Taino within the first generation of colonization.

With the indigenous people gone, outside forces began to shape a new and eclectic culture. In the 1600s, settlers from Bermuda arrived to establish a salt industry in TCI’s natural high-salinity ponds. In the 1700s, the Islands passed into the hands of France, Spain, and later, Britain. Pirates from various countries frequented the Turks & Caicos, and Loyalist sympathizers moved here from the US after the American Revolution, bringing African-descended slaves with them. The Islands were annexed to The Bahamas, then Jamaica, and finally, in 1962, TCI became the British territory it is today.

Handcraft Instructor Daphny Forbes teaches a guest how to plait straw to make a bookmark.

Because of all the influences that have shaped TCI over the centuries, the country’s culture is a slippery concept. “When you come from slave states like ours, everything is demoralized, everything is less . . . there’s nothing to be proud of,” says Dr. Della Higgs, a social scientist who works for the TCI National Trust and serves as a cultural advisor for Island Mystique. “We’re still in the process of creating an identity that is valued.”
It doesn’t help that many of TCI’s current residents moved here from other countries, or that much of the economy depends on tourism. “There are so many people wanting to live here and wanting a piece of the Islands,” Higgs said. When your livelihood depends on tourists, it’s easy to prioritize their needs over preserving and protecting your own culture. And this is issue isn’t unique to TCI—it’s common across the Caribbean.

“So much of the authenticity of Caribbean cultural heritage is missing and whitewashed in tourism,” Higgs says. That’s why she was excited when Fulford approached her with her vision for Island Mystique. She hopes companies like Island Mystique will be the first step in bridging the gap between locals and tourists, teaching outsiders about the Islands’ true identity, and tackling the challenge of cultural preservation.

Through her work at the National Trust, Higgs is dedicated to conserving and promoting TCI’s rich cultural, historic, and natural heritage. The National Trust conducts public awareness and education outreach programs to this effect and manages heritage sites like Cheshire Hall and Wade’s Green Plantation. Higgs says there are tour companies that stop at some of these heritage sites, but that’s as far as most visitors get to know TCI’s culture. Island Mystique aims to go a step further, creating opportunities for guests to experience the soul of the Islands firsthand.

One key to sustainable tourism is offering activities that help visitors interact with residents. This lets tourists glimpse the true nature of a place, rather than just its resorts, and give their dollars to local businesses rather than international conglomerates. A common problem in the Caribbean, Higgs says, is that “We don’t own tourism in our countries.” Many residents work at someone else’s resort, for example, but few benefit directly from the tourism industry. Companies like Island Mystique help bring ownership to local people. “We need to get behind and stand behind businesses like these,” Higgs emphasizes.

Sugar &, a local sweet treat store located in Grace Bay Market, offers Foodie Tour guests a small package of local treats (Salt Cay candies, cream cakes, and milk duce), along with an explanation of their cultural significance.

So far, people seem to be getting behind Island Mystique. The company has been sponsored by Invest TCI, an agency that works to build the local economy by supporting entrepreneurs, and Fulford recently secured a partnership with global luxury travel group Luxe Tribes. Since launching late last year, Fulford has received promising feedback from her first clients—like how therapeutic the straw handcraft activity is and how the cooking classes build a sense of togetherness. “What you want is those fulfilling moments, those shared experiences that interlink us with each other and create a sense of belonging,” she adds.

While Island Mystique’s offerings are currently limited to Provo, Fulford hopes to expand to TCI’s lesser-visited islands—like North Caicos, which is a perfect candidate. “[North Caicos] is so pristine and untouched with its culture,” she explains, “It’s so authentically Turks & Caicos.” She hopes to add a one-night, two-day farm-to-table experience in North Caicos to Island Mystique’s offerings later this year, and to eventually offer immersive experiences on every island. “We want to promote each island,” she said, “to help their local economies and the persons who live there.”

For visitors, Island Mystique promises a slew of new things to do in TCI and a way to connect with the country on a deeper level. For locals, it’s one small way to put ownership of tourism back where it belongs: into the hands of the people who live here. It’s also the first tour company—of many, we can hope—focused on celebrating TCI’s culture in all its forms.

“We are more than sun, sea, and sand,” Fulford extols. “I want [visitors] to see who we are, indulge in who we are, and know that we are still here.”

For more information, visit:

Website: https://islandmystique-tci.com/
Instagram: https://instagram.com/islandmystique_?igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==
Tik Tok: @Island.Mystique
Trip Advisor: https://en.tripadvisor.com.hk/Attraction_Review-g147399-d26148369-Reviews-Island_Mystique-Providenciales_Turks_and_Caicos.html
Facebook: Island Mystique

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Nannette I Kucek
May 17, 2024 8:34

we are here. would love to see what you have . Where are you located? Please let me know.

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