A piece of paradise called Mudjin Harbour on Middle Caicos.

During the Golden Age of Piracy, legend has it that the notorious female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, hid out in the sheltered coves of the Turks & Caicos Islands after raids on passing merchant vessels. The long protective barrier reef provided a tranquil refuge after a stressful day of sword fights and pistols blazing. And turquoise waters gently lapping the long sandy beaches surely helped them to unwind while dividing up the loot. As night fell, we can imagine Anne and Mary and their fellow pirates drinking, dancing, carousing, and no doubt procreating under a billion stars strewn across a black Caribbean sky. This piece of paradise was their escape and, for a while, their home. 

Today, 300 years later, the allure of finding a paradisiacal getaway remains as enticing as ever. While many things have changed since Anne and Mary spent their down-time in the Turks & Caicos, a few remain the same. Modern visitors (wearing bathing suits and sunglasses instead of pirate blouses) still walk the same brilliant white sand beaches while gazing over the calm turquoise ocean. And they still drink and dance and party in this splendid heaven on earth. In that sense, yesterday’s pirates and today’s visitors are linked by a common quest for bliss before getting back to work, whether attacking ships on the high seas or building databases for corporate networks. 

Painting by TCI artist Rich McGhie portraying a pirate attack off West Caicos in 1798. See Articles tab for story in Times of the Islands.

Early on, the Turks & Caicos government and developers laid the groundwork for marketing the islands for high-end tourists–-visitors willing to pay a premium to enjoy spectacular unspoiled beaches spilling out into a brilliant turquoise sea just steps from their rooms. The strategy worked for the main tourist island for stay-over visitors, Providenciales or “Provo,” as everyone calls it. Soon enough, dozens of luxury resorts dotted the shores, particularly Grace Bay. At first these resorts were not very tall. Club Med, the first major resort in the mid 1980s, was only two stories. Other resorts followed with three, four, and then seven story buildings. Still, they all fit in and didn’t overwhelm. The same could be said for developments on Long Bay and on the western shore. 

Things changed abruptly with the construction of the massive 12 story high-rise in the middle of Grace Bay. Imposing and dominant and towering over all the other resorts, it forever altered the skyline and diminished the allure of Grace Bay. Residents sometimes call the white building “The Hospital” and some tourists actually think it is a hospital. Sadly, the construction took away part of the island’s soul and brought front and center the simmering issue of overdevelopment. And with several more resorts being built all over Provo (including another massive high rise) set to open in 2024 or 2025, the prospect that Provo may lose its luster as a unique and uncluttered retreat and respite for well-off tourists has become real. 

Unrelenting development comes with severe costs beyond a degradation of paradise. Notably, a disruption to society. This is vividly visible in Provo, which grew from a population of around 1000 some forty years ago to some 40,000 today. At the same time, thousands of Turks Islanders migrated to Provo for the jobs, leaving their islands far less populated. Thousands more from the US, Canada, UK, other parts of Europe immigrated to Provo for jobs and the convivial beach lifestyle. Other Caribbean islanders also arrived in large numbers, particularly those from Haiti to escape poverty and violence.

All of this has left many locals with the sense of not benefiting from the rapid changes to their island, of being squeezed out and left behind. This is particularly true on the outer islands which have not benefited much from Provo’s development, and in fact have suffered from depopulation. Everyone is acutely aware of this problem that has generated frustration over the very question posed in the title of this posting, “Who gets a piece of paradise?”