Jennifer Leigh Parker
Contributor Forbes Magazine June 7th 2021.
A confluence of technology, government cooperation and medical expertise came together to keep Parrot Cay open during the pandemic.
Here’s how they did it:
“Do you want to see something crazy? Look here.”
Jimmy the tour guide plunges his bare hand down into crystal clear saltwater to grab the silky tail of a baby nurse shark, who's been gliding under the shade of wild mangroves all morning, munching its way through a live buffet of conch shells and spiny sea urchin, entirely nonplussed by the presence of our large and lumbering kayaks. Luckily, the shark swims away too quickly for Jimmy, who has better luck snatching slimy jellyfish and pissing sea slugs up from their sleepy sandbar for the show-and-tell portion of our tropical eco-tour.
More plentiful in wildlife and wonder than any man-made aquarium, the turquoise channels, mangrove-shaded flats, and shallow reefs surrounding the 40 Turks and Caicos islands possess a staggering natural beauty unmatched, in my view, by any other Caribbean atoll.
Beyond beauty, these islands also claim the most coveted attribute in the post-Covid world: relative safety. The British overseas territory’s competent containment of coronavirus allowed the country to reopen to international visitors last July. As of this publication, according to the country’s tourism board, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the Turks and Caicos is one. Since the onset of the pandemic, the country has reported 2,421 total cases of Covid-19. For the risk-averse international traveler, this is about as safe as it’s going to get.
Located 575 miles south-east of Miami, where the unmasked and unruly still plague the sweaty flip-flop of an international airport and its pandemic-weary staff, a true escape awaits. It’s called COMO Parrot Cay, the private island-turned-resort owned by Singapore’s billionaire power couple Christina Ong and Ong Beng Seng. Nestled between thick groves of sea grapes, beneath the shade of coconut palms and royal poinciana trees, this colonial estate is spread out alongside four miles of soft white sand and turquoise waters as far as the eye can see. With 45 airy, white-on-Balinese wood rooms and suites and nine private beach houses, social distancing is literally built into the experience. Want to book a private dinner on your own stretch of beach, or snorkel all day without seeing another soul? It’s not a problem.
The catch is getting here.
You’ve got to cut through a lot of required red tape, including in-person doctor visits to administer mail order PCR tests (which must be taken within five days of arrival). You must purchase travel insurance which covers COVID-19 medical costs and full hospitalization, doctors’ visits, prescriptions, and air ambulance costs — but not necessarily accommodations (coverage amounts vary depending on which of these 13 listed providers you choose). You must also submit a government application via the “TCI Assured Portal” for approval before even thinking about which bathing suits and summer novels to pack.
It all makes for a stressful few days before takeoff, but generally speaking, this is the reality of international travel post-Covid. You should expect a gauntlet of pandemic pre-screenings and ad-hoc regulations, and the Turks are no exception. At some point in the process, you’re going to wonder whether all the prep is worth it. It is, and then some. Each hurdle you have to jump makes the experience seem all the more safe and secure once you arrive — because everyone in your 6-foot radius has been jumping hurdles too.
This kind of trip also has a major impact on the local economy and resort staff, many of whom are born and bred islanders. “I got my first shot on Jan 13th, because the government considered tourism employees essential workers. Tourism is really the only source of economy here. When the country reopened in July, Americans were tired of lock down and Europe wasn’t an option. But what really helped us reopen was our ‘we’re in this together’ approach,” said Atilla Cimsit, a hospitality-industry veteran now working as COMO Parrot Cay’s director of guest experience.
Sitting on the sun-baked balcony of the resort’s modern Italian restaurant, Cimsit explained how he kept every single employee on the payroll (327 staffers, including 127 on Parrot Cay, and about 200 in North Caicos and Providenciales), and how restricting capacity to a maximum of 50 guests helped keep Covid at bay. It’s a rare success story after a year marked by catastrophic devastation for the travel industry. But by April 2021, COMO Parrot Cay was booking the “best revenues in the resort’s history.”
Build tech to screen incoming passengers — This doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘hi-tech.’ It just has to be workable, coherent, and applicable to all parties involved. That’s why, prior to the building of the website, government officials met with the tourism association to prepare for the country’s reopening. “As our members make up the vast majority of the local resorts and villas on the islands, the government requested protocol suggestions from [us],” confirmed Sonia Simmons, communications manager for the Turks and Caicos’ Hotel & Tourism Association. The result is the TCI Assured Portal, developed by Amber Innovations Limited and owned by the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands. In this case, cooperation and communication made reopening possible.
Provide on-property Covid tests — By partnering with Grace Bay Medical in neighboring Providenciales, COMO Parrot Cay received government approval to perform antigen tests on property. This became necessary after the U.S. and UK announced pre-arrival testing requirements where travelers must show proof of a negative viral test administered within three days of travel. Now COMO Parrot Cay is one of the 12 licensed antigen testing sites in the Turks and Caicos. Grace Bay medical staff administer the tests and process the paperwork while the resort provides guest rooms solely used as clinics for testing.
Rotate staff in case of quarantine — Adopt a Team A and Team B mentality, especially in restaurants. If someone tests positive, the entire team needs to be taken out of operation for a period of quarantine, while the other team sterilizes the premises and moves in. For this to go smoothly, it helps if management reserves a few guest rooms for just-in-case quarantines, which safeguard both guests and staff.
Avoid layoffs at all costs — Anyone with a critical eye will scoff at this measure. Of course a billionaire-owned resort can avoid layoffs. I feel you, but when pent-up travel demand hits hotels, as is already happening, it really helps to have experienced, qualified staff able to hit the ground running. “When we come out, we’re going to need every team member to perform. We didn’t have to worry about bringing new people in and training them. It was easy to get back to normal, and everyone still wears a mask,” adds Cimsit.
Regardless of where you choose to stay in the Turks and Caicos, be it the basic singles favorite Club Med in Provo, COMO Parrot Cay for the healthy food and great spa, Amanyara for the peace and quiet, or the new Ritz-Carlton (opening in Grace Bay this July) — the main draw is the sheer beauty of the place and its people.
Take Jimmy, for example. A born and bred islander, he’s worked for COMO Hotels and Resorts for 15 years. He knows everything there is to know about the flora and fauna of this place, from the best fishing holes for bonefish to the warmest resting rocks for curly-tailed lizards. There isn’t a mangrove channel in these parts he hasn’t fished by hand, and he can tell you pretty much anything about these islands you could possibly want to know. Now, he’s building his own house on North Caicos island. Like so many of the COMO staffers, who are noticeably good at what they do, you can’t help but be happy for him.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.