The TCI tourism sector grew by 40.6% in 2014 and is the Caribbean’s fastest-growing tourist destination. In 2014, you hosted over 1.4 million visitors (435,000 of them stayover visitors). How did you achieve such phenomenal success?
There are many reasons for that success. Firstly due to our nature, we are a well sought-after destination. So, Turks & Caicos is often at the top of the list of destinations of preference. Our geography has something to do with it as well. We are located in close proximity to our major source market which is the United States. We are just one flight away from the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. So, our ability to get direct airlift from the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada straight to the Turks & Caicos is a major advantage. Over the past few years we have been increasing the number of flights and routes, including the latest out of Chicago this winter and Dallas Houston, in addition to the eastern seaboard of the United States and that has resulted in a significant increase in tourism. It is also due to our marketing efforts over the last few years. We do an annual Premier’s Road Show. I go personally with members of the Hotel & Tourism Association and we go city to city. We do more than six cities in five days to market the Turks & Caicos Islands as the place to be. Some of the resorts such as Beaches, which is a major player in the market, also do some significant work along with the government to market and promote the Turks & Caicos. So persons come here and experience the services that are provided, the exclusive, luxury treatment that is given and the lovely beaches and this is what gets them to love the Turks & Caicos. A significant portion of our market is repeat guests and so we have persons who love to stay and come back again and that helps our real estate market as persons want to come back again and again and again.
You mentioned that the US is your major source market. In order to build future growth, are your plans to build more in the US or diversify?
We are definitely looking to diversify. We continue to build more in the US connecting more cities so that there are more routes from our major source market. We are looking to diversify so we are focussing on the South American market. We have been doing a lot of marketing in the South American market. So much so that next year the Premier’s Road Show will take place in South American markets and we are also looking at getting airlift connectivity in the South American market to the Turks & Caicos. There are a few interested carriers that are ready to see how we can get that connectivity between the Turks & Caicos and the South American market. We also continue our efforts to market the Turks & Caicos to the European market. Over the past three years when you look at our statistics from countries like Italy, you can see our achievement. That has been helped by a shift from London Heathrow to Gatwick and via Antigua instead of The Bahamas, which has enabled us to have a larger carrier, a 777, out of London Gatwick. We have increased the flights from once per week to twice per week. So that has enabled us to bring more tourists from that market.
That’s great that you have achieved such growth last year. Have you assumed the same level of growth over 2015?
Yes definitely. We are well on track. The trends indicate that 2015 will end up being an improvement and an increase over 2014.
Do you have a particular target in mind for 2016?
When we look at the increase over the last two-three years, there has been an overall increase of 25% or so when you look at the overall stats – this of course includes both the overnight and the cruise stats. I don’t have a figure in mind for a % increase for 2016.
How do you plan on achieving that growth over the next few years?
Now that we have had increasing growth, our occupancy rates are sky high. We find that we used to have a longer slow season which traditionally spans from July through to October. But now our slow season seems to be really restricted to September. We are achieving occupancy above 60% well into August. So what we need to focus on is bringing more rooms, more inventory to the destination, because we haven’t had any significant increase in room keys over the past five or so years. The Shore Club was the last development to start and is on track to be completed very shortly and that will add room keys to the destination. The others that are lined up to start early next year include the Ritz Carlton and one or two others.
Are your plans mainly focussed on the island of Providenciales or are you looking at the other islands as well?
We are looking at the other islands as well. We are looking in particular at the island of Grand Turk. There are a number of projects that are listed that will help to increase overnight visitors to Grand Turk. We are in in discussions with airlines to increase flight service from the United States to Grand Turk. So, we are looking to increase airlift and marketing support for Grand Turk. On the island of South Caicos we are doing some development to renovate and extend the runway and develop a terminal to facilitate more flights into South Caicos to support the development of South Caicos. Regarding North Caicos, we are working with some hoteliers to redevelop the airport and to encourage resort development and tourism on North Caicos. So the focus is across the islands.
On a slightly separate matter, there has been a lot of coverage in the press recently regarding the warming of relations between the US and Cuba? Given that the US is such an important source market for you, do you expect that this might be something that could enhance your tourism product or might be a challenge to future growth?
I don’t think it will affect our market that much. The kind of tourists that come to Turks & Caicos is a little different to the kind of tourists that go to Cuba to a certain extent, even though you have nice beaches. We cater to higher end clientele through our tourism product. So, I don’t think the effect will be that great.
I want to return to where you started. What does all this mean for property buyers? I know the latest reports on the real estate market suggest that the luxury real estate market has grown by almost 50% over 2015. What do you feel that the growth in the tourism sector means for property buyers?
Well, we find that those two normally go hand in hand. When we see there is an increase in tourism numbers, we find there is a significant increase in the number of properties being bought on island. As I stated before, this is due to persons visiting for the first time, falling in love with the island and would like to return and purchase a second home in the Turks & Caicos Islands. We have a number of persons who are attracted to the Turks & Caicos and purchase property. Tourism in terms of real estate is a big market, a big issue for us. One of the reasons we have been able to accommodate such a big increase in tourism arrivals without actually increasing our hotel room inventory that much over the past five years is because we have a lot of properties and land being bought and houses being built and persons are using them as second homes and renting them as vacation villas. We have lots of high end luxury villas in the Turks & Caicos Islands. These are high end homes. These are homes that can fetch $1.5 – 2 million USD for a 3 bedroom home.
Are there any particular initiatives from the TCI government to boost the luxury real estate sector further?
There are some initiatives. We are looking at making some adjustments to the concessionary rates that would normally apply for import for micro resorts. We are going fully ahead with some of them and we are likewise encouraging long-term residents with subsidies.