Ramon Andrews took on his current role at the end of 2016 following a successful career managing a number of resorts in Turks and Caicos and professional experience in the Bahamas. Here, he explains how he is focusing on combining his know-how and passion with the country’s natural beauty and wide array of activities to take Turks and Caicos tourism to a new level
What have been your biggest challenge and achievements since taking up your post in 2016?
One of the biggest challenges we and indeed the country have faced were the two hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, both category five storms that pretty much devastated the destination. We had to convince the travelling public and tour operators that Turks and Caicos would not only rebound, but that we would be even better than before. And here we are, not even a year later and we are 120% operational.
How much of a change has it been moving from the private sector to the public sector in tourism, and what is your approach to the role?
A few things made the transition easier for me. Starting out as a hotelier, I have always been in tourism. And the former director of the Tourism Board, Ralph Higgs, the current minister of tourism, was always a good friend of mine and he knows what this office needs. I didn’t have to spend time convincing him of anything and was able to get on with the job. As someone from the hospitality sector, I am very hands on. When I go to the UK, I don’t sit behind a desk – I’m out knocking on doors doing marketing. When you get a personal encounter with people, you get that passion and people speak more candidly. It’s not the same over the telephone or through other media. This shows warmth and we’re a warm nation. The trade shows we used to do had two to three thousand people passing through. I said, let’s make it more intimate, cut it that down to 25 or 30 of the top players and make the location somewhere beautiful like a spa. Let’s make it memorable; if something is not memorable, then what’s the point of doing it?
How important is it to invest in expanding the airport to facilitate passenger arrivals? What other infrastructure is needed in Turks and Caicos?
With the airport, we’ve done well out of a small facility until now. But I think this is the time to really assess our requirements, not for the next 10 years, but instead really bite the bullet on what needs to be done. We can design something that could be built in phases over the next 30 years and this will end up being much more cost-effective while ensuring that our ambassadors and guests are flying in comfort and towards a product that works. The only thing missing right now is a convention centre. That would give a boost to business tourism, especially during the low season in the summer months when these events tend to take place. At during this time, our hotels are running at just over 50% occupation and they are able to give people comfortable rates.
What can be done to boost tourism on the smaller so-called sister islands?
On Grand Turk Island, for example, what we need are one or two new hotels. And the reason you need that component is the importance of creating traffic. Once you have a certain level, then you create a route for airlines and build brand awareness of the destination. The island is next to the third largest barrier reef system in the world and has the best dive sites in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Grand Turk also has a lot of history. Not only is it the capital and seat of government, but the people have built huge homes there, which are perfect for bed and breakfasts. I love the rustic feel of the island. With the sister islands, I think we have to work with what is there and build on that to attract more investment.
What would you like to tell potential visitors from Britain and elsewhere about the safety and recovery of the country after the 2017 hurricanes?
I would say come back to your second home because we are ready for you. The airport was open a week and a half after the storms. Our electricity and power is all up and running. The reason we’re able to recover so quickly is our proximity to the United States, meaning we can bring in supplies easily. We spent $45m only on restoring the power system, and we are certain that everyone will be safe if such a storm strikes again.
What are the advantages that set Turks and Caicos apart from neighbouring tourism destinations?
I think mainly the people and the fact that we are so inclusive. Travelling around, it’s hard to find an indigenous Turks and Caicos islander as we have blended so well. We have people from Spain, the US, Britain, Jamaica and Turks and Caicos; it’s just a beautiful mix that’s going on here. The weather is perfect and we have so many activities; you can kiteboard, you can jet ski or go over to Middle Caicos and see the second-largest above-ground cave system in the world. There is just so much to do, and you won’t feel forced to stay at your hotel or one given area; you can constantly hop from one island to another. I like to say that a day here is one of combined excitement and relaxation. You can wake up in an ocean-view suite and go down to breakfast to meet the world’s friendliest people. Then you have the option of relaxing on the world’s number one beach or going out to snorkel, dive or kiteboard knowing that everything you need is only about 10 minutes away. Then you can have lunch or dinner on the opposite side of the island, or just do nothing and relax where you are. We are becoming a leading culinary destination in the Caribbean and wellness is another growing sector for us. We have some of the best spas in the region.
Which niche sectors are you focusing on the most in the tourism industry?
Luxury is always going to be at the forefront of our tourism. It’s the pick of the crop, it’s sustainable and has a low impact on the country and the environment. Other people do mass tourism and they do it well. We don’t want to be there; we want to be in a comfortable position with the luxury programmes we have running. And then we have adventure tourists coming and this relaxes the market and encourages locals to invest because you don’t need to build a $200m hotel on a beach for this sector. You can run a bed and breakfast or follow the Airbnb model. The idea is that it’s going to be about 25% of our business and we have seen that the adventure tourists, the backpackers and the scuba divers like to travel during the summer, our offseason. So it’s a diversification that fits perfectly with our main product.
What are your major tourism markets, and what work are you doing to open up new markets for the islands?
Our strategy was to focus on the UK. We’ve done that well and now we’re moving into other European countries, and we’re already seeing more arrivals from Germany among other nationalities. But I would say that in terms of awareness of our brand, we are still in the early stages with a long way to go. We bring in tour operators and once they have seen Turks and Caicos, there is no turning back. We need to partner with the CNNs and the BBCs and get the images in front of more people. We need to tell our story. We need to tell people that there is affordable luxury here. And we need to get more direct flights, something the government is working towards and will achieve. According to information from the hotels, we have a 35% return rate and we are comfortable with that at this stage.