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History and Overview of the Turks and Caicos

The exquisite Grace Bay Beach in the Turks and Caicos
The unrivaled Grace Bay Beach.

The Turks and Caicos is a tropical Atlantic archipelago that’s located 575 miles (925 kilometers) southeast of Miami, Florida, and 75 miles (120 km) north of the Dominican Republic. The country is a British Overseas Territory with a population of 44,543 (2020 estimate) spread over nine inhabited islands. There are about 100 named islands and cays in the Turks and Caicos.

As our country’s name suggests, we have two island groups: the Turks Islands of Grand Turk and Salt Cay to the east, and the larger Caicos Islands archipelago of Providenciales, North Caicos Middle Caicos, East Caicos, South Caicos and West Caicos to the west. The 20 mile (32 km) wide and 5000 foot (1.5 km) deep Columbus Passage divides the two island groups.

Quick Facts
Capital Cockburn Town, Grand Turk
Language English (official)
Population 44,543 (2020 estimate)
Area 238 mi² (616 km²)
Highest Point 156 feet (48 m) - Flamingo Hill, East Caicos
ISO 3166 TC
Internet TLD .tc
Calling Code +1-649
Currency U.S. Dollar
Electricity 120v, 60Hz (U.S. Plugs)

The Turks and Caicos had an elected government similar to the structure of the United Kingdom, with the title of Premier being the highest local elected office. As a British Overseas Territory, King Charles III is head of state, and is represented by a Governor appointed by the United Kingdom Crown.

The majority of the population of Turks and Caicos resides on the island of Providenciales. Grand Turk supports the second greatest population, as well as the nation’s capital city of Cockburn Town.

Unlike many Caribbean countries, the Turks and Caicos has one of the lowest annual rainfall averages in the region, and consequently a high percentage of sunny days and great weather.

The islands in the Turks and Caicos are generally quite small, with low-elevation terrain. Drought-resistant tropical dry forest and marine mangrove wetlands make up the majority of vegetation in the country.

Luxury tourism is the primary source of income to the Turks and Caicos. Grace Bay Beach on the island of Providenciales is home to the majority of resorts and hotels in the country.

Language, Currency and Government

English is our official language, and we universally accept the U.S. Dollar as the common currency.

Who Owns Turks and Caicos? Is the Turks and Caicos a Colony?

The Turks and Caicos is a British Overseas Territory. There are 14 such territories, including Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, and Gibraltar, and these territories are basically remnants of the British Empire. The United Kingdom retains responsibility for defense and international relations. The Turks and Caicos and most other British Overseas Territories are self-governed, with much of the local government elected. The British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is head of state.

Above: The national costume of the Turks and Caicos.   Top right:  Top left:  Mario Robinson with his boat Sun 2 Sun, winner of the 2019 Fisherman's Day race! The Fisherman's Day is a fun and interesting annual event.   Bottom right:  Top right:  Homestead in South District, Salt Cay. The island has many older houses and buildings that have a heavy colonial Bermudian design influence. Cut limestone blocks would be mortared together to form the walls and then be plastered over for extra protection.  

The Turks and Caicos Name

Our country’s name originated as a warning of pirate islands, as the islands were favored as a base of operations by buccaneers in the 1600s and 1700s.

In previous days, “Turk” was simply a common synonym for pirate, and Caicos is derived from the Taino term Cayo Hico, which means “archipelago” or “island chain”. The “Turks” part of our country name is not derived from the native Turks Head Cacti.

When some of the initial maps of the region were made in the early 1500s, the two terms were combined as a caution to sailors and travelers.

Luxury Tourism

Grace Bay Beach, Le Vele Resort, The Mansions Resort, and Villa Renaissance
Luxury resorts on Grace Bay Beach.

Today, luxury tourism is the primary source of income to the Turks and Caicos. There’s a wide range of places to stay across the islands, including expansive all-inclusive resorts, quiet hotels and luxurious rental villas. A large selection of restaurants, tour and boat cruise companies, spas, and boutique shops complement the places to stay. Many sites and activities are family-friendly, yet there are a few adult-only resorts as well.

The primary vacation attraction to the islands is our exquisite marine environment and unparalleled beaches.

A counterpart to the luxury tourism industry is the real estate and investment market in the Turks and Caicos, which has greatly expanded in recent years.

Flights and Getting Here

The Providenciales International Airport (PLS) welcomes all scheduled international flights to the Turks and Caicos, with arrivals from over two dozen cities across the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and the Caribbean.

Grand Turk also features an international airport, yet only regularly sees domestic flights. Airports and airstrips can be found on nearly all other inhabited islands.

The short flight times from many major U.S. east coast cities is a significant convenience for many travelers. Miami is under 2 hours away, New York, Charlotte, Boston and Philadelphia are less than 4 hours, and Chicago, Toronto and Montreal are just over 4 hours. The British Airways flight to London is the longest route at 11 hours.

Car rentals and taxis are the main forms of transport throughout the country. Road navigation is simple due to our small islands, and a simple map suffices as a guide.

Cruise Ships

The pristine beach at the oceanfront Cockburn Town
Cockburn Town, Grand Turk.

Grand Turk also features the country’s only cruise ship port, which sees about 12 cruise ship arrivals per week. Carnival Cruise Lines runs an expansive cruise center complex that features shops, dining and shore excursions.

Grand Turk is a great cruise stop. The island is small, so it’s easy to explore, there are great beaches, as well as several minor yet interesting historical attractions. On the typical Caribbean route, it offers the best beaches and is the best destination for simply exploring by rental car.

Grand Turk also offers a limited market for overnight stays, with small hotel and colonial villa rental options to choose from, which largely cater to the boutique scuba diving industry.

Tourism Seasons

Like many tourism destinations, the Turks and Caicos experiences predictable peaks and falls in visitor arrivals throughout the year. The winter “high season” is the busiest time of the year, and the end of summer and fall months experience the fewest arrivals.

The rates and availability for local accommodations and activities reflect the different seasons, and it’s possible to save quite a bit with visits during the low season.

Weather and Climate

Clear ocean water and sunny day at Half Moon Bay Beach
A sunny day at the beautiful Half Moon Bay.

The Turks and Caicos experiences great weather year-round. The climate in the Turks and Caicos perfectly complements the beaches, with sunny days and temperatures ranging from 75° F (24° C) to 90° F (32° C).

Rainfall and cloud cover is statistically low, ocean temperature ranges from 79° F (26° C) to 85° F (29° C), and wind conditions usually vary from calm days to breezy conditions from the eastern trade winds.

As the Turks and Caicos is near the Caribbean, it is affected by the Atlantic Hurricane Season in the summer and fall months. Our islands have been lucky and haven’t experienced many major strikes over the last few decades, with Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Hurricane Irma in 2017 having caused the most damage in recent years.

Natural and Marine Environment

A Turks and Caicos Rock Iguana, Little Water Cay.

The main claim to fame for the Turks and Caicos are our spectacular beaches and crystal-clear ocean water, which are crowned by the world-renowned seven-mile-long Grace Bay Beach on Providenciales.

The Turks and Caicos is also acclaimed for its exceptional scuba diving and is home to one of the finest barrier reef systems in the Atlantic Ocean. The coral walls at Grand Turk, Providenciales and West Caicos, where the depth drops from 30-50 feet (9-15 m) to over 7,000 feet (2.1 km), are among the best wall dive sites in the world.

The environment of the Turks and Caicos is perfect for eco water sports such as kayaking, paddleboarding and kiteboarding. Extensive mangrove channels and shallow turquoise lagoons create the perfect landscapes to explore.

Sport fishing is another major attraction in the Turks and Caicos. Every year, several tournaments take place in the islands, from the international Caicos Classic billfishing event held on Providenciales, to many smaller reef and bottom fishing contests. The bonefishing found on the Caicos Banks shallows near Providenciales and the Caicos Islands is unmatched.

On land, we have a top-rated golf course, natural and historical attractions, and some rather impressive Karst cave features.

The oceans and wetlands of the country teem with wildlife, and it’s common to spot turtles, stingrays, fish, starfish, conch, sharks and coastal birdlife.

Above: The breathtaking view from the cliffs at Mudjin Harbour on Middle Caicos.   Top right:  Top left:  The incredible Turks and Caicos Barrier Reef off of Providenciales.   Bottom right:  Top right:  The brilliant colors of Chalk Sound Lagoon on Providenciales.  

History of the Turks and Caicos

Pre-Columbian Peoples

The Tainos (also referred to as Lucayans), are thought to be the indigenous peoples of the Turks and Caicos and are believed to have migrated up through the Caribbean islands sometime around the year 700 AD, possibly to escape persecutions by other warlike tribes.

The Tainos generally had a simple style of living, surviving on farming, hunting, fishing and gathering, yet they did practice limited trade with the neighboring islands of the Bahamas and Hispaniola.

Columbus and the New World

The recorded history of our islands begin with the arrival of Columbus and Europeans.

When the islands were first discovered by Europeans is debated. Some historians believe that Grand Turk was Christopher Columbus’s first point of landfall in the New World in 1492, others believe that Juan Ponce de Leon found our archipelago in 1512.

In any case, the islands saw very little activity for several decades after the historic event, and loose “control” of the Turks and Caicos was passed over time from Spain, France, and Britain according to military events and treaties.

Pirates and Buccaneers

As uninhabited islands in the natural route of the trade winds from Europe, piracy was a major problem in the early days of the Turks and Caicos. Into the mid-1700s, buccaneers could hide in the many natural coves and channels throughout the islands and prey on unsuspecting ships passing by.

The threats of these raiders persisted until the advent of the Loyalist days, when defenses such as Fort Saint George were constructed, and naval patrols by Britain began in the region.

In addition to the legacy of the country’s name, other elements of those days remain. Parrot Cay, today the home of a luxury resort favored by celebrities, was once the site of a pirate base due to the fresh water sources on land. The island’s name was changed from Pirate Cay to Parrot Cay to be more appealing to peaceful folk. Likewise, the uninhabited French Cay was named after famous pirate Françoise L’Olonnois.

Sea Salt Production

Aerial view of windmill and salt salinas on Salt Cay in the Turks and Caicos
The sea salt salinas on Salt Cay.

Sea salt production was a mainstay of the Turks and Caicos economy for more than two centuries.

Although naturally occurring salt was collected by the Tainos at sites such as Armstrong Pond on Middle Caicos and Proggin' Bay on Providenciales and traded with inhabitants of Hispaniola before the arrival of Europeans, serious large scale production and export did not begin until the later 1600s when British Colonials in Bermuda recognized the potential of the country’s shallow salt ponds, and developed an efficient system of salinas, gates and dividing walls to speed up the process of evaporation of ocean water.

Salt Cay, Grand Turk and South Caicos all saw almost all available pond space developed, and at the height of production, almost two million bushels of salt per year was exported.

As has been the case with many industries in the country, the small islands simply couldn’t compete with the extensive and more-efficient salinas of other regions. One nearby example is the Bahamian island of Great Inagua with its expansive Lake Windsor, where Morton Salt outputs more than one million tons per year.

Loyalist Plantations

North Caicos, Middle Caicos and Providenciales did see agriculture attempts with cotton, sisal and sugar cane plantations. After the American Revolution, displaced Loyalists were granted land in British territories in the Caribbean and they began to forge a new way of life.

Initially a very successful industry, the Sea Island Cotton exported from the Turks and Caicos, a variety plant that was introduced by the Tainos, was held in high regard in the Americas. However, hurricane damage, soil erosion, drought and insect infestations doomed planting in the country.

Cotton planting never completely died out until the 1900s, yet the heyday of the period was the early to mid-1800s. Cheshire Hall and Wade’s Green are two plantation sites that operate today as tourist attractions.

The Sisal and Guano Days

The old steam engine at Yankee Town on West Caicos
This Victorian-era Burrell Traction Engine was mistakenly sent to West Caicos (in the British West Indies), instead of a sisal plantation in British West India.

After the cotton decline, two other industries took hold in the Victorian-era: bat guano mining and sisal growing.

The caves on Middle Caicos and East Caicos hid a substance known at the time as cave earth, a soil and bat guano substance that was rich in phosphoric acid and served as an excellent fertilizer. Before the advent of artificial fertilizers, this material was quite valued, and much of the local guano was exported to the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean.

Sisal, a fibrous agave used as to produce rope, was raised at extensive plantings at East Caicos and West Caicos, which started with a promising outlook, yet global demand fell and competition from the hemp fields of the Philippines put an end to the attempt. Yankee Town on West Caicos is the best remaining historical site from the period.

The Modern Age

The first half of the 20th century saw somewhat of a migration out of the Turks and Caicos due to the lack of employment. Many choose the neighboring islands of the Bahamas (in particular Grand Bahama) as a new home.

After World War II, the United States recognized the tactical advantage of the location of the Turks and Caicos, and a U.S. Navy Base and Air Force Base were constructed on Grand Turk, and a Coast Guard LORAN station was built on South Caicos.

The tourism industry had a very late start here, and was largely absent until the 1970s. Although Providenciales has by far the most development in the country, the island was a very quiet place until the late 1960s, when the tourism boom began (and was also the decade that the first car arrived on Providenciales).

Today, tourism, financial services, and limited small-scale fishing exports are the main revenue sources for the Turks and Caicos. The islands also have become a popular investment destination for vacation homes and rental villas.

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