Interview: Turks and Caicos Minister of Tourism John Skippings

Following news that Canada are to refresh a bid to purchase the Caribbean Island`s of Turks and Caicos Caribbean Weekly offers an exclusive interview with the Tourism Minister, Joe Skippings. 
CW: How is Tourism on Turks and Caicos Islands?
JS: Tourism is our main industry, employing two thirds of the population and it has had extraordinary growth over the last 5 years. Pre 9/11, we were growing at an average of 20% each year. The hub of tourist activity is centered on the island of Providenciales. However as years progress there has been a noticeable increase in visitors to the family islands and to Grand Turk, the capital Island in particular. Our development projects continue to be tourism focused and range from boutique, upscale properties, to larger scale condominium resorts. On average we have about 150-160,000 visitors a year.

CW: How have recent world events (SARs, The War In Iraq, global economic downturn), effected the Islands performance with regards to tourism numbers
JS: It has been a challenging year for us all in the region. However the Turks and Caicos Islands has performed well in spite of this. We are still a relatively new destination and still catering to niche markets such as upscale travelers, wedding and honeymooners, investors and divers. These markets remained quite stable in the period.

We will continue to remain competitive but not in terms of discounted travel - the value in vacations here is more about the fact that our visitors can experience unspoiled nature and upscale properties which are new and/or well maintained. Our airlift is now one of the best in the region with US Airways, American Airlines, Delta, Air Canada, British Airways, BahamasAir and Air Jamaica Express bringing us regular scheduled and frequent non-stop flights through our peak season and most of our off-peak season.

CW: As online bookings for holiday’s increases do you feel that the age of the travel agent is slowly decreasing as internet users become more and more savvy? In light of increased Internet usage do you feel that online advertising and Marketing is the key to success in the battle to keep the Caribbean tourism industry alive?
JS: 25% of our visitors still come from travel agents, but there has undoubtedly been an upsurge in internet bookings and the use of the internet. However there is still a significant customer base that wants the personal touch, the assurances and the qualified recommendations which travel agents can provide. The Turks and Caicos islands is maximizing the opportunities of both the internet through on-line marketing as well as the travel agent network to support the industry.

CW: What is your current stance on the position with Canada and its notion of a renewal bid on acquiring Turks and Caicos?
JS: It is very interesting that this issue has risen its head again, after a decade. It is flattering that the Turks and Caicos is seen as such a prize possession and we hope that more Canadians will fly to our destination as a result of the publicity, if only to see the territory that ‘they could have won’!


CW: Would the bid, in your view, be beneficial to the Island network? How would the local population feel and ultimately benefit from this move?
JS: Having a strong relationship with another country brings benefits , bringing investors from a specific country, raising awareness of the destination and creating links and partnerships internationally. However we have an existing relationship with Britain as we are a self-governing British territory and this relationship has endured for over hundreds of years.

CW: Do you feel that the bid will be successful? If so how long, roughly, will the transaction take to complete?
JS: I do not think it will be successful as one of the distinct advantages of our status right now, is that we use US dollars and have built a strong and long term relationship with the UK. If it is successful I would anticipate such a change would take a few years.

CW: Ralph Taylors marketing campaign, `Life Needs The Caribbean`, is deemed a success, do you feel that the campaign has been beneficial for your Island?
JS: Yes we are a member of the campaign and support the collaborative efforts. The campaign has been successful I am sure for the region. It is difficult to measure the success of a regional campaign on individual countries and also in such difficult times. However raising awareness of our region as a place for peace, tranquility and escape, especially in the TV campaign I am sure has been very worthwhile and has reduced the negative impacts of the recent and current political and economic climate.

CW: How good is the diving and fishing around the Islands?
JS: Excellent. The Turks and Caicos Islands is situated on the third largest coral reef system in the World, packed with marine life. We have won awards for having the healthiest reef, best wall diving and best dive operators in the region over the last years.  The diverse marine life also ensures that we have wonderful fishing opportunities deep sea, bottom fishing and one of our most popular activities bone-fishing on the tidal flats that surround Providenciales and South Caicos in particular.

Are your reefs protected, and your fisheries controlled, monitored?
JS: The Turks and Caicos has 33 National Parks protecting land and marine environments as well as wetlands. The Department of the Environment and Coastal resources monitors the use of the National Parks and also has a fisheries department which monitors and enforces fishing regulations.

CW: What is your budget for advertising in the UK?
JS: Budget information is highly sensitive for us. However we do advertise in the UK and Europe in a proportion commensurate with the number of tourists who visit the Islands. Approximately 10% of our visitors are from the UK and so we try to spend approximately this percentage of our marketing budget on our UK advertising.

CW: What is Turks and Caicos’ biggest tourism draw card?
JS: The first thing that comes to mind is the fact we are ‘undiscovered’. This means we are an unspoiled destination with low crime, miles of beautiful often deserted beaches and a pristine coral reef. This also means that tourists can come and experience a friendly culture that has remained relatively unchanged in centuries.

CW: Finally, in light of the current world situation, how safe do you view the Caribbean as being?
JS: Very safe, but we must not be complacent. In the Turks and Caicos Islands we have implemented additional security measures at our airports to minimize risks to our international tourists and air carriers. On our Islands in particular we pride ourselves on our lifestyles which reflect the values of a bygone age.

Compared to other destinations, the Caribbean is still a more relaxed, laid back place which is why right now, more than ever, to quote our campaign Life really does needs the Caribbean.