What it’s like to visit the Turks and Caicos islands now
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When an opportunity to visit Turks and Caicos’ most popular island, Providenciales, for three nights recently arose, I was game. COVID-19 cases were low there throughout July (the islands even had zero infections the week before I was set to leave), entry requirements were strict and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel advisory was Level 1: Low Level of COVID-19, so I felt comfortable making this my first post-vaccination trip — and my first flight and hotel stay in more than 17 months. Yes, I am pretty risk averse, so as someone who typically traveled at least once a month before March 2020, sitting out the global pandemic was a big adjustment. But the time seemed right for a long weekend getaway with my niece.
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Here’s what I experienced and what you can expect. Note: Entry requirements recently changed and the pre-testing window for authorization is now three days rather than five and both PCR and antigen tests are allowed. More about that later.
Given its proximity to the U.S. and the daily nonstop flights on American, Delta, JetBlue and United from multiple gateways — including New York, Newark, Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston and Dallas — Providenciales offers an easy escape to the Caribbean. But that doesn’t mean the Turks and Caicos government didn’t make me (and everyone else wanting to visit) jump through a few pre-travel hoops in order to enjoy its islands’ white-sand beaches and clear turquoise water.
After checking the Turks and Caicos Islands Tourism website, I knew I had to receive authorization to even board my flight — and that involved multiple steps. The first was to get tested. My flight was on July 23, before Turks and Caicos changed its entry protocols on July 28, so I had a five-day window to take a PCR test, get a negative result and upload it to the TCI Assured portal. The site recommended testing on Sunday for a Friday flight, but it also warned that if authorization expired (which it would after July 23), another test and authorization would be required. So, if for some reason my flight was canceled, I would need to repeat the entire process in order to reschedule my flight for July 24.
That seemed impossible, so I decided to test on Monday, July 19, which would give me that added day of authorization — and I told my niece, Jessica, who was meeting me in Providenciales, to do the same. I live in New York City and after a bit of research, I chose to get a test (my first-ever for COVID-19) at a LabQ mobile testing van that a few friends who had recently traveled recommended. Just in case, I called LabQ’s toll-free number three times and spoke to three different people who assured me the test was the nasopharyngeal PCR test required at the time to be authorized, that I would get my results within 24 hours and that it would be a downloadable lab report that I could upload to the TCI Assured portal. The test was free and a few swabs of each nostril later, I was on my way home to await the results.
Related coverage: Why I love Turks and Caicos
Several days earlier, I had taken care of the other requirement for TCI Assured authorization: medical/travel insurance valid in Turks and Caicos for “COVID-19 medical costs, full hospitalization, doctors’ visits, prescriptions and air ambulance/medevac.” I had let my annual medical/travel insurance lapse in 2020 since I wasn’t traveling, so I purchased a medical plan valid for my trip dates from United Healthcare Global’s SafeTrip. And I told my niece to do the same.
I received a text from LabQ at 11 p.m. on July 19 — just 13 hours after my test — telling me that my results were ready and I could download my lab report. I was negative.
It turns out that the travel/medical insurance TCI requires needs to include coverage for quarantine, should one test positive while on the island. Mine only covered medical costs, hospitalization and emergency evacuation, not the cost to quarantine if I tested positive while there. Since I am fully vaccinated and would be on Providenciales for less than 48 hours before I needed to take a test to fly back to the U.S., I wrote a letter saying that I would be responsible for any quarantine costs should they arise. I told my niece, who is also fully vaccinated, to do the same. I was approved about an hour later. My niece’s test result took about 36 hours, so she applied later than I did and ended up getting approved the night before her flight.
If I had to do it again, given the latest revelations about the contagiousness of the delta variant, I would definitely make sure my travel/medical insurance covered the cost of quarantine.
Now that Turks and Caicos has shortened its pre-travel testing window to three days from five, it’s even more important to plan the timing of your test (and how quickly you’ll get results) and application. Here are the current requirements: “Effective 28th July 2021 the Turks and Caicos Islands will accept negative antigen taken via nasopharyngeal swab and PCR by oropharyngeal/nasopharyngeal swab to the Islands. All COVID-19 tests must be completed 3 days prior to date of arrival to the Islands.” Children under the age of 10 are exempt.
Specific details and other FAQs can be found here.
The accepted test types are as follows:
• A reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction test, or RT-PCR test.
• A nucleic acid amplification test, or NAA test.
• An RNA or molecular test.
• An antigen test completed via nasopharyngeal swab.
The official documentation of the laboratory that conducted the COVID-19 test should state:
• Name of individual tested (must be same on application and lab test result).
• Date of birth of individual tested (must be same on application and lab test result).
• Name and contact details of testing laboratory.
• Indication of laboratory credentials (CLIA, ISO 15189).
• Date and time of sample collection.
• Type of test.
• Type of sample.
• Test result.
Checking in and departing
As a carry-on traveler, I love the ease of checking in online for a flight 24 hours beforehand and downloading a boarding pass to my phone — but with the testing and authorization required for Turks and Caicos, that wasn’t possible. In fact, the Delta website said to arrive at least three hours before my 9:40 a.m. flight, since I would need to check in in person before going through security. I arrived at JFK at 6:50 a.m. and, surprisingly, was able to walk right up to the counter, show my authorization, check in and get my boarding pass. It was a Friday in late July and the security line was long, but it moved pretty fast. Within 30 minutes, I was walking to my gate. As I passed a departures board, I noticed that my flight was delayed until 10:45 a.m. I now had more than three hours until departure.
About 45 minutes prior to boarding, all passengers for my flight to Providenciales were instructed to check in again and show their authorization to a gate agent, who verified that the authorization date was valid and marked boarding passes with “OK.” I noticed at least one visibly upset traveler and wondered if she had tested too early and her authorization had expired. When we finally boarded, the flight was almost full and there were quite a few families onboard. I was surrounded by kids and teens, so I kept my mask on for the entire three-hour flight, stashing the handout nuts for later and sipping my pre-purchased iced tea through a straw slipped beneath my mask.
I was also glad I had a pen, since the flight attendants handed out three forms — a health questionnaire, customs declaration and international embarkation/disembarkation card — to be filled out before arrival. Some required my hotel’s name and address, so have those handy.
The arrival process
I forgot to mention earlier that I printed out everything — TCI Assured authorization, lab test result and insurance documents — and it turned out that hard copies of all three needed to be presented to the inspector awaiting at the end of the snaking immigration line. Then it was on to a temperature check and another line for the official review of the forms I’d filled out on the plane (everyone needs to hold onto the lower portion of the embarkation/disembarkation card that they hand back to you with your passport; it’s required to leave the country). I waited for my niece, who arrived on a United flight from Houston, and we headed outside fully masked (required in all public places through at least Sept. 30) to the taxi stand.
Airport taxis on Providenciales are shared rides in vans that are priced per person (generally $27-$40 for most resorts). Masks are required at all times while riding in them. Our van was completely full, but we had to make just one stop before arriving at The Shore Club Turks and Caicos on Long Bay Beach.
On-island restrictions and protocols
As Jessica and I checked in, we were given the rundown on resort protocols — masks were required in the lobby, gift shop, spa and while waiting at restaurant entrances to be seated (as well as while at the breakfast buffet). Everywhere else, masking was up to us (I wore one in the elevator as well). Hand-sanitizer stations were plentiful and the tables in the four on-property restaurants, which are partially covered and open-air, were spaced to meet the island’s 70% capacity rule.
Staff members wore masks at all times and reservations were required to use the fitness center. Other than that, all the expected five-star amenities of this elegant, 110-room condo-resort property, which opened in early 2017 and is a sister resort to The Palms Turks and Caicos and The Sands at Grace Bay, seemed pretty much as they were before COVID-19 shut everything down. And most tourist activities — excursions, shops, restaurants and bars — are operating, with a midnight closing time and capacity restrictions.
With just two days to enjoy the beach and Providenciales’ incredible water, Jessica and I decided to spend Saturday at our resort, where I enjoyed a 60-minute massage (mask off while face-down for comfort, on while face-up; my Balinese therapist was masked) before we relaxed on shaded chaises and took dips in the ocean, which by afternoon had been mostly cleared of the sargassum seaweed that can accumulate on windward beaches in summer.
Plenty of people were active in or on the water, either swimming or Jet Skiing or kiteboarding, but we were content to chill and sip late-afternoon cocktails (this was my first day of total relaxation away from home, after all) before showering and heading to dinner at the resort’s open-air Sui-Ren restaurant.
Sunday morning, we followed COVID-19 testing signs to a building near the fitness center that had been set up for complimentary on-site testing to meet requirements for all travelers returning to the U.S. It was 10 a.m. and after we self-swabbed both nostrils and they were packaged for the lab, we were told the results would be at the front desk after 5 p.m. We then hopped an 11 a.m. complimentary shuttle (masks required) to The Palms to enjoy an open-air lunch at the beachside 72 West restaurant, swim in the calm, clear waters of beautiful Grace Bay (no seaweed here) and then in the resort’s gorgeous freeform pool, where we sipped cocktails and enjoyed a socially distanced chat with a couple from New York at the swim-up bar.
Back at The Shore Club, we stopped at the front desk to pick up our test results. As the person at the desk handed the envelopes to us, I said that I hoped they were both negative, and the employee told us we would have been called had they been positive. Jessica and I were all set to head home.
Departure back to the US
Mondays can be a bummer, especially when leaving a Caribbean island after too short a stay. Negative PCR test results in hand, we took a taxi to the airport (our driver had an official “vaccinated” card dangling from the rearview mirror), arriving the recommended two hours before departure only to discover that the unfortunate scheduling of nine flights to the U.S. within a two-hour period in a rather compact airport meant that social distancing was nonexistent.
I doubled up my mask as I waited to check in (my passport and the paper copy of my COVID-19 test were examined and my boarding pass was stamped in red with “Docs OK”) and then I stood with Jessica in her line before we waited in another lengthy line to undergo a temperature check, clear security and emerge into a gate area teeming with passengers waiting to board all of those flights.
The chaotic departure from Providenciales wasn’t the way I wanted to end my quick and until then super chill Caribbean getaway, but I can’t say it was unexpected. Travel is back and so are its most common frustrations — plus the added pressure of making sure you’re tested and comply with all requirements. Still, for my first international trip, it was relatively hassle-free and totally enjoyable. Navigating a short trip to a destination with very few COVID-19 cases has given me the confidence to begin prepping for my next international journey: an 11-night Viking cruise to the Adriatic from Malta in late August.
Featured photo by Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images.
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