Brian Major | February 24, 2016 11:45 AM ET
The Turks & Caicos’ Tourism Flourishes Through Adversity
This week’s Caribbean media machine churned out the unfortunate news that Michael Misick, premier of the Turks & Caicos from 2006 to 2009 and currently on trial in Providenciales for corruption and money laundering, has announced his intent to enter the race for representative of the country’s North and Middle Caicos electoral district.
You read right. Misick is the same official who resigned as premier and ultimately fled the Turks & Caicos in 2011 following the launch of a criminal investigation into numerous bribery, corruption and money laundering schemes he and associates launched during his tenure. Arrested in Brazil in 2012 and returned to the Turks and Caicos in January 2014, Misick was released later than month on bail ahead of trial.
“I seek God’s blessing and favor as we continue the struggle to free our people from colonial rule and lead them into true progress and prosperity,” Misick said in a CaribbeanNewsNow.com report this week.
Like any accused person Misick deserves – and is in fact receiving – his day in court. On the other hand, individuals on trial for significant criminal offenses are not normally considered ideal candidates for political leadership.
In any event, the former premier and tourism minister will face significant hurdles as he seeks to exonerate himself and his ex-cabinet confederates. Misick and several former ministers are accused of obtaining government land parcels at discounted prices and selling the land to foreign developers at a profit.
In fact, the fraudulent land sales were just part of a larger pattern, prosecutors say. As one opposition politician outlined in the CaribbeanNewsNow report, a 2009 commission of inquiry reported “systemic corruption within the government” under Misick, who left “two consecutive years of budget deficits of $38 million and $36 million.”
This past week, prosecutor Andrew Mitchell said high-ranking officials at Sandals Resorts International (SRI) secretly paid $1.65 million to a real estate company controlled by Michael Misick in connection with another land transaction that allegedly defrauded the Turks & Caicos government of millions of dollars.
In his opening statement in Misick’s trial, prosecutor Andrew Mitchell said payments were made to the former premier by “one or more” Sandals-related companies. Sandals officials confirmed the payments, which were made “without the knowledge or consent of the principals of Sandals.”
It’s easy for me to recall Misick’s alleged inauspicious actions because I was just starting as a TravelPulse reporter covering Caribbean tourism when his case broke into the news.
Certainly the Turks & Caicos has no monopoly on public officials facing corruption allegations, which generally amounts to a global condition. But as I read of the scandals I couldn’t help but contrast the specter of a compromised Turks & Caicos administration with the destination’s clear tourism success.
Despite the political troubles and its status as a smaller, under-the-radar warm-weather destination (it’s technically not even in the Caribbean), Turks & Caicos visitor arrivals surged ahead in the years during and following Misick’s tenure.
The Turks & Caicos Tourist Board (TCTB)’s first reports citing increased arrivals were issued in 2010 and by 2014 land-based and cruise ship visitor numbers totaled 1,407,313, a 31.6 percent increase over 2013. The growing arrivals documented TCTB’s success in cultivating an image for the destination as a sophisticated, upscale vacation destination with an intimate, distinctive character.
Today Providenciales, the Turks & Caicos’ largest city, features highly regarded upscale hotel and resorts set along Grace Bay, one of the finest white-sand Caribbean beaches. High profile Grace Bay properties include Beaches Turks and Caicos, Club Med Turquoise, the Regent Palms, the Gansevoort Turks & Caicos and the Seven Stars and Sands at Grace Bay resorts.
The Grand Turk Cruise Center is among the most popular and highly rated of all of the recent generation of purpose-built cruise port developments. Opened in 2006, the facility is credited locally with raising the Turks & Caicos’ profile among cruise vacationers. It also paved the way for similar developments in other Caribbean destinations.
“The Turks and Caicos has maintained double-digit growth even during the recent years of financial downturn,” said Ralph Higgs, TCTB’s director of tourism, last year. “The destination’s strong branding and positioning as well as the recession-proof clientele that patronize the Turks and Caicos keeps the destination on track for a steady annual performance.”
I’ve visited the Turks & Caicos a few times in the past five years and invariably found it to be charming and easy-to-take, and ideal landing spot for a families, romantic couples or stressed city dwellers (like myself) looking for some low-key, warm-weather relaxation.
Visitors won’t find an abundance of frenetic nightlife around the territory and motorized craft are banned from incredibly placid Grace Bay Beach. What the Turks & Caicos does offer is outstanding scuba diving, great restaurants, cave exploration, golf and historic sites including the Grand Turk Lighthouse.
The signature event of my first visit there was the “Race for the Conch,” a swimming race across Grace Bay Beach. I watched from shore as competitors streaked across the beach’s clear blue waters as hundreds cheered them on. Later there were beach barbecues and music. A good time was had by all.
I find it remarkable that this country has found a way to parlay its wonderful natural attributes into solid tourism growth despite the government’s struggles. Indeed it leads one to wonder how much more might have achieved behind honest, committed leadership at the highest levels.
With so much to offer I’m hopeful the Turks & Caicos will continue to benefit from its strengths as a vacation destination, as tourism growth undoubtedly creates opportunity for its citizens. Like the residents of any other nation they deserve a fair and honest deal.
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