It seems only yesterday that public awareness of this island archipelago was more or less "Turks and Caicos who?" For years, these islands were little more than a breathtakingly beautiful, slumbering backwater, home to a close-knit society of islanders called Belongers and the haunt of a smattering of fishermen and divers, beach bums and drug smugglers, and, of course, the well-heeled looking for an untouched cay in which to drop anchor.
Today the TCI is one of the premier destinations in the Caribbean, winning numerous travel industry accolades for its high-end, low-impact hospitality ethos. The action has largely concentrated on the main island, Providenciales ("Provo" for short), and its 19km (12-mile) beauty of a beach, Grace Bay. While many of the outlying islands retain the feel of an idyllic outpost, Provo has been on a dizzying growth spurt, becoming one of the fastest-growing spots in the Caribbean.
For a relatively new tourism destination, Provo has attracted an impressive lineup of world-class accommodations, a stable of resorts that few other rookie Caribbean destinations can claim. It's mind-boggling, really: Follow that long, sinuous stretch of Grace Bay beach and you'll pass such heavyweights as Club Med, the Regent Grand, Point Grace, the Somerset, the Regent Palms, and the Gansevoort. And just offshore is celebrity magnet Parrot Cay, the determinedly downscale luxury of the Meridian Club, and the Turks & Caicos Sporting Club (a Greenbrier affiliate) on Ambergris Cay.
In fact, things were going swimmingly, with resorts ratcheting up the luxe factor, until the islands were hit with a triple whammy: the devastating hurricane of 2008, the global recession, and the country's own little constitutional crisis. In 2009, the boom came to a thudding halt. Projects stalled or went into receivership. Nikki Beach, the glitzy nightclub brand, shut down its resort in Leeward in 2009. Construction on the much-touted Ritz-Carlton project on West Caicos came to a stop, and plans to zap sweet little Salt Cay into a luxury golf resort were put on ice.
Today, the bones of unfinished resorts hover over pricey beachfronts. The Toscana, in the Lower Bight, looks like a burned-out Tara, its unfinished frame rising out of the sand amid a goofy stand of transplanted pine trees. The Royal Reef Resort, on Sandy Point in North Caicos, is a stark concrete pile within view of Parrot Cay's exclusive beaches. Perhaps the biggest thud heard 'round the islands was the demise of the much-ballyhooed resort on Dellis Cay, one of the Caicos Cays, where a handful of world-renowned "starchitects" was tapped to design a Mandarin Oriental hotel, villas, and homesites starting at around $2 million (with celebrities like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones on board).
Why the TCI?
Why was little TCI ripe for all this tourism activity in the first place? For one, the country's beaches, water, and coral reef system remain astonishingly unspoiled. The seas have an intense blue-green hue that puts Technicolor to shame. The climate -- best described as an "eternal summer" -- is ideal year-round. Gentle breezes blow in from the east, instant relief from the relentless sun. For North Americans, the TCI has other pluses: English is the official language, the U.S. dollar is the local currency, and the islands are easily accessible by plane. Nonstop flights out of places like New York City (3 hr.), Boston (3 1/2 hr.), Charlotte (2 hr.), and Miami (1 1/2 hr.) mean you can jump on a plane in the morning and be lazing about on a tropical beach by early afternoon.
And until the economy went, well, south, the islands also enjoyed zero unemployment -- although much of its work force is now drawn from off-island, from places like Haiti, Jamaica, and even the Philippines (the native TCI population is relatively small). Even more important, it has one of the lowest crime rates in the Caribbean. Yes, there is petty crime, but you simply do not see the kind of impoverishment and homelessness that continue to plague other Caribbean countries.
The island citizens -- "the Belongers" -- enjoy one of the best primary and secondary educational systems in the region. The Belongers share such a warm familiarity that it's easy to see why many have embraced the possibility that all are connected by blood, descended from the 193 African slaves freed on these isolated islands when the slave ship Trouvadore, carrying them to lives of bondage in the Americas, wrecked on the East Caicos reef in 1841. Research is underway by a Turks & Caicos National Museum expedition team to discern whether a shipwreck found off East Caicos in 2004 is the Trouvadore -- and if so, whether its inhabitants were indeed the progenitors of the modern-day Belongers. For the latest information, go to www.tcmuseum.org/projects/slave-ship-trouvadore.
For those who knew and loved the TCI in slower times and who had concerns that the islands were in danger of being overdeveloped (or even ruinously developed), it's comforting to know that of the 40 islands that compose the TCI, only 10 are inhabited. Even the most populous beach, Provo's Grace Bay, has long, dreamy stretches where you're the only soul on the soft sand. The focus has been on sustainable development and low-impact, high-end properties -- boutique resorts with ecologically sensitive bones -- a vision held in large part through the fizzy boom times. And perhaps the financial recession/constitutional crisis is something of a blessing in disguise, a necessary stopgap for a runaway train. With things moving at a little slower pace, perhaps the business side will be more in tune with the natural rhythms of the island nation -- essential for the survival of both. For the islanders who live and work in the TCI, and for travelers who love its bounteous beauty and soul, that's awfully heartening.
Turks & Caicos at a Glance
Location: The Turks and Caicos archipelago is located in the British West Indies, 48km (30 miles) south of the Bahamas, 161km (100 miles) northeast of the Dominican Republic, and 925km (575 miles) southeast of Miami. The TCI is not officially in the Caribbean -- it's in the Atlantic Ocean.
Population: The country's population is approximately 30,000 people. Citizens of the TCI, called "Belongers," are primarily the descendants of African slaves and comprise more than half the islands' population. A large group of Haitian expats live and work in the TCI (many of them so long they have become Belongers). Other expat groups include a growing number of Jamaicans and Filipinos.
Size: The two island groups -- the Turks islands and the Caicos islands -- together comprise 500 sq. km (193 sq. miles) and are separated by the 35km (22-mile) Columbus Passage, the sea route Christopher Columbus took during his exploration of the New World in 1492.
Economy: Tourism, fishing, and the offshore finance industry are the big three. Regarding the latter, the islands are a "zero tax" jurisdiction and have no taxes on income, capital gains, corporate profits, inheritance, or estates. There are no controls on transferring funds or assets in or out of the country.
Government: The TCI is a British Crown Colony. A queen-appointed governor holds executive power and presides over an Executive Council. A 1987 constitution established a representative democracy, and today the local government is elected by the citizens and includes a premier (the country's first), a deputy premier, other ministers, and a legislative council empowered to enact local statutes. The TCI seat of government is Cockburn Town in Grand Turk. Note: At press time, corruption concerns have led the British government to suspend the constitution and assume governance of the island for at least 2 years. The plan is to return self-rule to the island once governmental safeguards have been put into place.
Last time the queen visited: 1966. Elizabeth II stopped in at South Caicos for the day, sailing in on the royal yacht Britannia.