It is impossible not to notice when Carnival season comes around in the Caribbean. Months in advance, Soca and Calypso music (and all their variations) take over the airwaves, and as February draws near, fêtes (parties) are in greater abundance and a multitude of tourists flock to our shores from far and wide. Then you know, it is undeniably Carnival season.
On the 27th and 28th of February this year, masqueraders will descend upon the streets of Trinidad and Tobago, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and Martinique, and other Caribbean countries. They will don vibrant costumes in raucous and colourful displays of national pride, with the biggest carnival in the Caribbean region kicking off in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.
Various versions of Carnival take place all around the world, but what makes the Caribbean Carnival so popular? What keeps people religiously coming back each year? Some locals would say “It’s a vibe, it’s a feeling,” but at the crux of Caribbean Carnival is its culture. Culture is a top commodity for the region, feeding the tourism industry, which is the crown jewel for the majority of those islands.
Key to understanding the Caribbean Carnival, is to understand the festive culture of the region’s islands. The energetic and unique culture has triggered this Carnival’s reproduction as far reaching as Toronto, New York, Miami, and Notting Hill. The promotion and growth of Caribbean culture is shared through cultural immersion, acceptance of cultural diversity, and enhancing co-operation among the countries of the region. One reason Carnival is so important to these islands is that it is one of the most unifying events in the region. It is a reflection of the shared social and historic experiences and an expression of culture encapsulated by music, dance, costumes, and performances. Although it is celebrated in assorted styles, there is a prevalent thread: the exhibition of clear and uncommon cultural pluralism in the Caribbean and the importance of harnessing this expression to boost the tourism sector and the economies of the Caribbean.
Trinidad and Tobago hosts the region’s largest Carnival or ‘mas,’ with some debating that the season unofficially starts as early as November the previous year. J’Ouvert, the parades held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the dancing to calypso and soca music, the stick-fighting and limbo, the costumes and competitions, are all weaved into the fabric of the society. Perhaps, more could be done to acknowledge Carnival as not just a social event, but as a distinctly important economic activity, particularly on the road toward diversification of the local economies.
According to industry reports, within the past decades, Trinidad and Tobago’s masquerade industry has grown to be one of the leaders of the Carnival business scene on the islands. Visitors arriving for Carnival have increased by 60% since the late 1990s and this figure continues to grow annually. In addition, industry reports indicate that revenue from Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival exceeds on average US$100 million. However, although tourism is the top services sector revenue earner for the country, a number of specialists debate whether the most is being made of Carnival to boost the sector. According to the Immigration Division of Trinidad and Tobago via the Ministry of Tourism, the international visitor arrival to the country in 2015 was approximately 439,749 and 408,782 in 2016, this represents a 7 % decline.
What can be done to improve these figures?
Some have proposed the idea of lengthening the official Carnival period, to attract international visitors for the wide range of pre-Carnival activities and steelpan competitions, to go beyond the traditional two days of parading. This has promising prospects, as it may establish a five or six week window, from the start of January to the end of Carnival, for more tourists to come to the islands. Instead of pursuing large number of tourists for short periods, the country may focus on promoting immersive tourist packages focused on deeper cultural aspects of the country.
Marketing strategies to appeal to different countries, ages groups, and interests, in order to increase Carnival tourists might be developed. Carnival packages that include ecotourism aspects for instance, would attract a new market, the environmentally friendly travellers, the eco-conscious masquerader. Trinidad and Tobago, for example, is a bird-watchers paradise, having the largest number of bird species per square mile in the world. It is has the largest freshwater and saltwater swamps in the Caribbean (Nariva and Caroni swamps) and the largest population of nesting Leatherback turtles. Such unique attractions can be used to penetrate the market of young people who are concerned about sustainable development but who also enjoy a good time.
In addition, lengthening the season allows for the many local artisans to showcase their work longer and to a larger market. This enhances community tourism and the one-of-a-kind craft, cuisine, and music associated with Caribbean Carnival. The mas industry creates a critical amount of economic activity locally, in entertainment, media, retail, hospitality, and media. Carnival produces business opportunities for singers, song writers, costume designers and designers, musicians, chefs, choreographers, party promoters, artists, and makeup artists, just to name a few. It has been a driving force for the growth and development of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs).
There is no question that Carnival is a significant social and cultural event for locals and the international audience. However, its economic importance must no longer be discounted. Greater recognition is needed for the celebration to achieve its full potential. Carnival in this region is a valuable and sustainable economic industry, which is held up by facets that are wholly Caribbean in nature. In a state of uncertain economic times, the cultural diversity of the region provides a major competitive advantage.