The country’s annual Carnival celebration is a unique and distinctive event, and as such has the potential to play an even greater role than it already does in the local tourism industry. National Geographic magazine lists the Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago as one of the world’s “Top 10 Pre-Lenten Celebrations”, noting that the custom was started in the late 1700s by the French as a masquerade ball for the island elite, but subsequently grew into an “egalitarian street spectacle” and, given the country’s ethnic mix, has become a “multicultural extravaganza”.
The celebrations consist of various elements culminating in the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, opened by the early morning J’ouvert celebrations and continued into the Mas ( masquerade) street parades. They include a series of preparatory parties, known as fetes, the Carnival steel pan competition Panorama, live music (particularly soca, calypso and rapso) and major processions of “bands”, groups rather like Brazil’s samba schools which compete to be selected as the overall winner.
Participants are described as “playing mas” – taking part in a band’s procession. Locals and tourists pay a fee to join a band – a payment that includes the cost of food and drink and the band’s distinctive costumes, complete with a Carnival mask, specially designed as a once-off for each event. Carnival is therefore significant not only as a tourist attraction, but also as an indigenous industry in its own right, with the bands functioning as small enterprises and marketing brands, linked to the music, fashion and design industries, while small workshops are dedicated to producing masks.
Precise data on the economic importance and contribution of Carnival is hard to come by. According to figures from the Central Statistical Office, Carnival – defined as the 19-day period preceding Carnival Tuesday – attracted an average of 38,454 visitors between 2002 and 2012, which is equivalent to around 8.3% of the country’s 2014 total tourist arrivals. Many see Carnival as the “jewel in the crown” of the country’s tourism attractions.
While not necessarily comparable, estimates of the year-round impact of Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the US suggest it is worth 2.2% of the city’s GDP, or some $465m. According to Brazil’s Ministry of Tourism, the Rio de Janeiro Carnival brought in as much as $3.2bn in tourism revenues in 2012.
As a tourism product, however, Carnival faces a number of challenges. It can be argued that its full potential is not being exploited. One of the most obvious issues is that international tourists and many expatriate Trinbagonians flock to the islands at Carnival time, but only for a few days. Many fly in on the Wednesday, Thursday or Friday before Carnival and fly out again on Ash Wednesday. Although matters have now improved, a related problem has revolved around the timetabling of events. While major international tour operators often fix package tour dates and itineraries six months or more in advance, the specific dates of some Carnival events are often not known until only one month in advance.
Louanna Chai-Alves, executive director of the Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants and Tourism Association (THRTA), told OBG that Carnival is less of a direct revenue generator than many people believe. Visitors stay for five days, but leave rapidly after the festivities are over. With around 1500 saleable hotel rooms in Port of Spain rented out for five nights and generating average daily revenues of around $250 each, the overall revenue figure was modest.
Although Chai-Alves recognised that visitors will also spend more on food, entertainment and shopping, her point was that the current dimensions of the event restrict revenue potential.
Extending the Brand
One of the difficulties is that hotel occupancy hits 100% for only one week out of the year, while for the other 51 weeks it averages around 50-60%. In light of this, it makes little sense to put more effort into marketing Carnival internationally if in fact it is already “sold out”, at least in terms of hotel rooms during the key dates.
The industry has discussed various alternatives to address this issue. Among others the Tourism Development Company (TDC) had suggested increasing capacity by parking a cruise ship outside Port of Spain during the week of Carnival. Other people in the industry believed more emphasis could be placed on extending the Carnival brand to occupy more weeks across the year. One way this could be achieved would be to incorporate the large number of pre-Carnival events that already take place between the beginning of January and Carnival itself, which falls on different dates within a three to four week span across February-March every year.
Chai-Alves said, “There is a slew of activities taking place between January and February which are an opportunity for another kind of visitor to experience a different aspect of Carnival. We have looked at getting people to come in and explore how the costumes are made, to see how the steel bands practise, to hear calypsos being sung in the traditional fora, the calypso tents. Then there is an opportunity to deliver regional tourism by visiting the fetes around the country.” Chai-Alves added, “A product already exists in place before the five-day Carnival period, but we have not done a good job of marketing and packaging that product.”
Lorraine Pouchet, chair of the National Carnival Commission of T&T, told OBG, “It would be interesting to know how many of the 40,000-45,000 who come for Carnival each year are first-time visitors.” She feels many who come every year are regulars – expatriates and friends – and that there is a need to develop a marketing strategy to attract newcomers. Pouchet warns that T&T has not yet maximised the tourism potential of Carnival, and might face competition from similar festivals elsewhere.
The debate over Carnival is connected to a wider discussion over how best to brand the T&T tourism proposition. As the best-known Caribbean Carnival, the annual event could in many ways be the single strongest and most distinctive brand representing the country as a tourist attraction. Yet the industry has yet to find a way to meaningfully link Carnival tourism with the other types of tourism it is seeking to promote, from beach tourism through to sports tourism and ecotourism.
Stephen Broadbridge, owner of Caribbean Discovery Tours, told OBG, “Carnival is a very short period of time. The flights are already full. The hotels are usually full and there is no space. What they should be doing is use it to sell other things.”
Chai-Alves noted that in 2011 the government and tourism stakeholders began an exercise to investigate how best to brand T&T, but following subsequent leadership changes in the ministry and the TDC, the effort lost momentum. Accordingly, the government that emerges from the 2015 elections will likely need to consider how best to develop the full potential of T&T’s “rich mix” of tourism assets.