The British Overseas Territory of Turks and Caicos, in the Caribbean, bounced back remarkably fast from the effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria and is now seeking to diversify its economy by offering attractive options beyond the traditional sun and sand holidays. As Britain moves closer to Brexit, Turks and Caicos stand ready to make the most of their privileged relationship with the UK, their political stability, good transportation links and lack of direct taxation, and to channel those advantages towards investment in tourism, business, health and financial services. Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, who made history by becoming the first female premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2016, explains her vision for this small nation of resilient people
There are many female office holders in your government. How are the women of Turks and Caicos achieving what many in other countries still dream of?
I don’t think it’s a great feat in Turks and Caicos Islands because this is a matriarchal society. Growing up in two-parent homes, the mother was always the main decision-maker, and I myself come from a family of very strong women. Women have always been leaders in the sectors that they chose to go into, and what you are seeing now is women turning their attention to non-traditional sectors and succeeding there as well. Historically we saw them in teaching positions, in Sunday school, in government administration. And now that they are choosing to take on new roles, I don’t think there is anything stopping them except themselves. When I became a lawyer about 20 years ago, I was one of the first 10 women to go into law in Turks and Caicos Islands. Now there are many of us. We don’t have the sort of barriers that women do in some other countries, where they cannot vote or drive.
In September of last year, Turks and Caicos experienced two hurricanes in the space of one month. Yet the islands made a tremendous recovery with little disruption to the economy. To what do you credit this success?
Relationships are important, and the right policies and partnerships are important. Even after the global meltdown and the experience of maladministration, we recognized quickly that we had to change our approach in order to rebuild confidence and trust. After the hurricanes, we were regional leaders in early recovery because of creative policies that did things like eliminate red tape for the electricity company to reconnect homes, and for the telecoms to rebuild resiliently. We created a partnership, not just with the local private sector but globally, with CARICOM, the United Nations, and even the Bill Clinton Foundation. And the combination of all that got the economy going again.
You also serve as minister of finance, as well as holding responsibility for Invest Turks and Caicos. How are the islands encouraging, prioritising and incentivising domestic and foreign investment?
We just agreed on an Investment Policy Statement, which we hadn’t had since 2012, and this document looks directly into diversification, clear policies, clear guidelines and priorities. It has a vision as to where we want to go. It creates a business-friendly environment that is conducive and makes people want to do business in Turks and Caicos Islands. You can say your doors are open, but if you have a lot of red tape then the environment is not going to be so welcoming. We are looking at diversifying our tourism product. We will always cherish our beaches, but the storm of 2017 was a lesson learned: putting all your eggs in one basket is really not a good idea. We are now growing into weddings, ecotourism, diving – we have the third largest reef barrier in the world – and we hope to conclude discussions by the end of the year to become a shark sanctuary. We are in close proximity to North America and connecting to locations all over the world, so we also want to speed up our development of business conference facilities. And as we move off from tourism we are also looking at technology, agriculture, and aquaculture, which are not just priorities in our investment policy statement but also in our small business program.
What about the financial sector?
As a small country with a small population and no direct taxation, we appreciate that we cannot do everything, so we want to do some things really well. The financial services sector was hit by external factors, but it is still a very strong industry that we believe can grow within a niche market. And for not just FDI but also for our existing investors, we have created something for the first time called the Refurbishment Policy that gives them concessions to renovate and to inject capital into their existing businesses. That was a very welcome move, especially after the storm. Normally concessions only come along with new investments, but now we are looking to give existing domestic investors concessions as well. We import quite a lot so a lot of our concessions have to do with customs and duty waivers. We are also looking at targeted markets and have shovel-ready projects where I can say I want a wellness centre in Caicos, here’s what I’m prepared to do, and all you as an investor have to do is fund the project.
What role can British investors play in this, and what role is there for public-private partnerships (PPPs)?
We are happy that the Caribbean Development Bank, one of our key lending institutions, created a PPP toolkit last year when I served as the chair of the board of governors, and a number of countries are going in that direction as well because governments have these big visions that cost a lot. And to me, the UK is the obvious market in PPPs more than anything else for the future. Last year I did an interview with 20 to 30 journalists in Brussels, and we want to do that again to get the name of Turks and Caicos out there. That’s the kind of targeted marketing we want to do. We’ve shied away from the European market for far too long. We’ve done it in North America, where 90% of our tourism comes from. Now we are conducting field studies to see what is out there, and we have a pretty good idea of the industries and sectors that investors are interested in, so we can create policies in those particular areas.
Why would an investor from Britain want to invest here?
For one thing, Turks and Caicos Islands have no direct taxation – no corporate gains, no capital gains tax. In terms of accessibility, it has over 30 direct flights, and we use the US dollar as the legal tender. We have political stability. And being an overseas territory, UK investors know there are already existing ties, and if you look at our Constitution, someone who comes from the UK has an edge over other nationals because of their UK citizenship. And the land is registered as guaranteed, which protects their investment. We are basically a dream come true.
And what makes the UK so appealing to Turks and Caicos Islands?
The power of the pound, and our need for a diversified market. We are also drawn to UK investors because we are a UK overseas territory ourselves. It’s a new market with familiar ties.
Do you feel that Brexit brings an opportunity for Turks and Caicos?
We are impacted only in the sense that right now we get EU funding for our education sector, business transformation and biodiversity. But we believe that with the UK leaving the EU, there’s an opportunity for the UK to have that direct funding with us. There are certain obligations they have anyway under the United Nations to assist us in our development, so it’s pretty much like removing the middleman. We feel this is a good opportunity for a straight face-to-face relationship with the UK. Looking at post-Brexit, there is going to be a lot of flight capital and we’re standing ready. We know there are a lot of opportunities for businesspeople here. I know we can benefit because after the UK leaves the EU it will be more welcoming in that sense.
Turks and Caicos Islands is heavily reliant on North American travellers. What is your strategy to attract more tourists from elsewhere?
Airlift is critical. People are coming a long way and they really need the most affordable yet convenient routes. This year we’ve invested in a program that the tourism ministry will be implementing that actually follows markets; for instance, we know that the diving market is huge in Brazil, so we’ve put a representative in Brazil. That is the strategy we are following: we analyse the markets that we want to tap into and send representatives there; we are also looking at airline connections. Three years ago we did a survey with a cross-section of tourists to see what they want and what is missing from Turks and Caicos Islands. We always keep our ear to the ground with tourists, and we are always trying to give them an authentic Turks and Caicos Islands experience. We are looking to foment our nature trails, and channel more investment to the National Trust so our heritage is on display, so people will not just come for the sun and sand but for an authentic experienced grounded in our history, and which includes the beaches, the diving, the nature trails and also our cuisine.
Although Turks and Caicos Islands recovered quickly from the hurricanes, some potential tourists are shying away from the area. What is your message to them?
The same one I delivered when we went on a marketing campaign and did interviews with many media outlets, including CNN and Sky News, to explain that the Caribbean is not destroyed. We showed videos of what our beaches looked like within a week of the storm. And it wasn’t just us – some tourists took their own impromptu videos saying ‘here I am in Turks and Caicos Islands and I am in the water’. And then we had different players step in: the taxi driver, the restaurant owner, and they shared videos that were time stamped to show the world what we looked like. It was difficult, because people just lumped us all together as “the islands”, even though we were one of the last to be hit so we were at the tail end of the damage. But people saw all the destruction elsewhere, forcing us to step up our own marketing. We reorganized our budget to earmark more funds for the tourism market, and we worked with the private sector. We used every form of media to communicate our message, especially social media.
In 2017, tourism arrivals to Turks and Caicos fell by 4% from 2016. What strategy does Turks and Caicos have in place to reverse this decline, and what is the outlook for this year?
Part of the reason is that we lost about four months of the tourist season. Because we bounced back so quickly, a lot of people don’t realize the impact to the economy. So while the storms took place in September, our largest resort beaches were closed for four months, and these are responsible for 60% of our airlift. And with Club Med and Beaches closed for a whole quarter of a financial year, it was bound to have an impact, even though we recovered quickly and within a week of reopening we were full again. It could have been so much worse because we were projecting something like $78 million loss in revenue.
If you were given a blank cheque to invest in anything, what would you do with it?
Education and youth. And not just formal schoolbook education but also technical education, and teaching them how to be entrepreneurs. Also, more programmes for youths who have got on the wrong side of the law; I believe in the Second Chance programme; we have programmes for youths with a police record to give them a second opportunity, and that is where we have to focus because at the end of the day, even though youths are viewed as tomorrow’s leaders, if you don’t teach them today, they’re going to be learning on the job and that’s not really a good thing.
Where do you see the main intersections of interest between the UK and Turks and Caicos, and what would you like British investors and opinion leaders to understand about the islands?
First of all that we exist, and that we have our own set of governance structures and our set of cultures. That’s really important: respect for the culture. In terms of the intersections, there are so many opportunities: Turks and Caicos Islands is almost virgin in every area; nothing is saturated, nothing is over-exploited. We are prepared to create markets, though not at the expense of our environment. We believe that development and the environment do not have to be at odds with each other. We can be bridgeheads, we can be so many things, and we are working to find out what it is that investors want. We are particularly interested in medical tourism, alternative energy, food security, and technological advances.
Do you have a final message for potential investors?
Turks and Caicos Islands has weathered many storms in the past, and we have shown ourselves to be resilient people and a resilient nation. We have bounced back every time more beautiful than before, and we stand ready to welcome our visitors, who will find the friendliest people, very strong systems, a well-respected rule of law, and a willingness to do business. We hope that people will appreciate the hospitality that we show, not just to our tourists, but to our investors as well.