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Don't Stop the Carnival (with apologies to Herman Wouk)

By Michael W. Sansbury
January 2012

Last year I had the opportunity to undertake a relatively short (but live-in, not commute) assignment on Providenciales in the Turks & Caicos Islands. I've been asked to write about the experience and will do so by first describing the Islands, then a few of the peculiarities of operating a resort there and, finally, by pointing out several factors affecting the short- and long-term future of the destination.

Many Americans have never heard of the Turks & Caicos much less visited the country. Those who have believe that they are on the Caribbean Sea. They would be wrong. The Turks & Caicos, like the Bahamas and many other islands described as "the Caribbean" are actually on the Atlantic Ocean.

The odd name comes from the simple fact that the country consists of two groups of tropical islands in the West Indies: the larger Caicos Islands and the smaller Turks Islands. Providenciales, in the Caicos, is the largest city and tourism center and has a population of approximately 22,500, which is about half the country’s population. It is, however, not the capital. That would be Cockburn Town in the Turks.

Located in Providenciales, the international airport is about 650 miles and an easy 1 1/2 hour flight from Miami on American Airlines using 737 aircraft. Service from other hubs is provided by Delta, US Airways and Jet Blue. Interestingly, the cruise ship terminal is not at Providenciales but rather at Grand Turk.

The attractions of the Turks & Caicos are stunningly beautiful beaches, crystal blue water, deep-sea fishing and some of the world's best diving. For its size, there are a surprising number of luxury hotels (mostly condo-hotels) and great restaurants. Most of the hotels are independent but brands represented include Regent, Gansevoort and Aman Resorts. The last is a case study in and of itself as it is located in the absolute most remote spot on its island, has no signage directing you to it and does not even have a paved road to its entrance.

My subject hotel is a condo-hotel, which can be a difficult business model for the uninitiated developer-operator. Prior to my arrival, depending on whom I asked, I got different answers as to the number of rentable units we had available due to owners' lockouts and when the units were and were not in the rental pool. But let's call it a 153 all-suite property. The units are spacious, beautifully decorated and include every imaginable amenity. The property has it own beach, a large pool, a spa, restaurant, pool bar/cafe, and a really cool outdoor beachfront bar. There is also an extensive water sports program conducted by Steve Irwin's twin and his wife.

As throughout the "Caribbean" the labor situation is very different in many respects from that in the U.S. Unlike other islands, such as the Bahamas, there is no real hotel / restaurant union in the Turks & Caicos. Instead, because of the importance of tourism to the local economy, the government Ministry of Labour functions almost as a union.

Also, at this hotel the entire Housekeeping Department, including the Director, is made up of Sri Lankans, all men. While the weekly wage is low by U.S. standards, the true cost is enormous as each employee must have a very expensive work permit, housing provided by the hotel, and home leave every two years. Do a quick mental calculation of the cost of an airline ticket from Providenciales to Sri Lanka! That said, they are industrious, cheerful workers, many of whom have left behind families and friends who they see only once for two weeks every other year.

Even more interesting at this hotel is the case of security. The original developer of the resort was a fanatic about security, despite a relatively low crime rate on the island. He recruited a large (for the size of the property) contingent of Gurkhas, Nepalese fighters who have been part of the British Army for 200 years and are described as "fearsome.” Each of them carries an 18-inch carved knife known as a kukri. The cost of this is also unbelievable as they are paid higher wages plus the aforementioned work permit, housing and home leave.

One day I received a call from the Minister of Labour asking me to hire a specific local resident in Security (I later learned that it was his brother-in-law). As this had been an issue festering between the Ministry and the resort for a long time, and as we had several work permits pending for key management positions, I decided this arrangement might be a good investment. While the head Ghurka, being a loyal and good soldier, didn't complain, the condo owners were furious as they thought the cohesion of their beloved Ghurkas was being busted!

But there are much more serious issues facing the Islands. Over the years, the Turks & Caicos have been under the rule of the Spanish, including Ponce de Leon himself, then the French, then the British. For a time, the British put the governor of Jamaica in charge. When Jamaica was granted independence from Britain in 1962, the Turks & Caicos became a crown colony and the governor of the Bahamas was put in charge. When the Bahamas gained independence in 1973, the Islands received their own government. In August, 2009 the United Kingdom suspended the Turks & Caicos self-government after allegations of ministerial corruption and a British governor was installed. The local population protested furiously to no avail. Among the fallouts was the Ministry of Tourism, from which it has been rumored that significant monies are unaccounted for. As a result there has been no promotion of the destination, except by the private sector, for nearly three years. Facing competition from new resorts, and potentially from Cuba as a destination, this is potentially devastating.

But there are still those stunningly beautiful beaches and crystal blue water… Only 1 1/2 hours from Miami...

N.B. Herman Wouk is an award-winning author whose novel "Don't Stop the Carnival" is an hilarious account of a New Yorker who decides to give up the rat race to become a hotelkeeper on a Caribbean island.

About the author:
Michael Sansbury is Cayuga’s Development Consulting Group Leader, offering extraordinary experience with development, operations and strategic planning for upscale resorts, resort casinos and high-end hotels, including executive positions with Baha Mar Resorts, Loews Hotels, Mirage Resorts and Westin Hotels & Resorts. Also an expert in: capital investment planning; government affairs and community relations; casino management and operations; and, event planning and operations. Litigation support/expert witness testimony experience in the areas of operational liability and development issues.

Reprinted with permission from Cayuga Hospitality Review.  All rights reserved.


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