Questions about the business of Carnival

Within Trinidad and Tobago’s diverse tourism industry, the annual carnival is frequently cited as the jewel in the crown. Certainly, in cultural terms it is central to Trinbagonian identity. 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 celebrated across the islands and beyond. That said, whether the country is making the best of Carnival from an economic point of view is open to debate.

Tourism in Trinidad and Tobago has basic differences from the sector in many other Caribbean islands, which are largely seen as “sun, sand and sea” offerings. While Tobago has the beaches and natural beauty to compete with other islands on that front, Trinidad is a more complex attraction. It caters to travellers ranging from business people to carnival fans, beach-tourists to convention-goers, visitors on yachts to eco- and sports-enthusiasts. The rich mix offered between the two islands offer is both an asset and a problem. How should the country brand and promote itself to best effect?

Tourism is the top service export

Tourism’s total contribution to the country’s GDP in 2013 was 8.2%, and directly and indirectly the industry employed 27,500 people (4.5% of total employment). According to the latest available figures from the Ministry of Finance and the Economy, approximately 467,097 tourists visited the two-island country in 2013, a 7.2% decrease from the previous year. Tourism is the top services sector revenue earner in the country. There is no precise breakdown of the relative economic impact of the different types of tourism, but a number of specialists question whether the most is being made of Carnival.

At the Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants & Tourism Association (THRTA) executive director Louanna Chai-Alves says business tourism linked to the oil and gas and financial sector is the bedrock of the sector. Yet since around 2007, hotel occupancy rates have dropped to 50-60%, down from 70-80%. This is attributed to expanding capacity (the construction of the Hyatt Regency, the Carlton Savannah, and the upgrade of the Hilton Trinidad) coupled with slow growth in demand (affected by a slower world economy and the growth of video-conferencing and new media). “In Trinidad & Tobago we need to find new markets outside business travel,” Chai-Alves told OBG.

Extending the carnival ‘window’

Built on a five-day high-season during Carnival in the days preceding Ash Wednesday, many industry participants are calling for diversification within the tourism sector to help exploit the potential of the islands.

The problem with Carnival is that international tourists (and many expatriate Trinbagonians) flock to the islands – but for only a short period. Many fly in on the Wednesday before Carnival and fly out again on the following “cool down” Ash Wednesday. Sources in the industry say that might mean full occupancy of around 1,500 hotel rooms for 5 days at an average daily spend of US$250 a day. Visitors will also spend outside the hotel on food, drink and joining bands and shows. Good revenue – but only for one week out of the year’s 52.  One response could therefore be to try to lengthen the Carnival period, attracting international visitors to the whole range of pre-Carnival fetes and steel pan competitions. This has the potential to develop and promote a five-or-six week “window” stretching between the beginning of January and the end of Carnival.

There is also a debate over whether the islands should pursue mass or more select types of tourism. In rough outline, mass tourism involves large numbers of people spending modest amounts of money, while more select or niche tourism involves fewer people with a higher spend per capita.  Stephen Broadbridge, who runs Caribbean Discovery Tours, an ecological and cultural tour agency, argues that Trinidad & Tobago should not be chasing after cruise ships, which bring large numbers of people ashore for short periods of high disruption and low per head spending.

Instead he favours smaller groups visiting the country’s tropical rainforests, bird, butterfly and leatherback turtle sanctuaries, including world-renowned sites such as the Asa Wright Nature Centre.  “We should be using Carnival to promote tourist packages at other times of the year,” Broadbridge told OBG. He also suggested marketing packages that combine Trinidad & Tobago. According to Broadbridge Trinidad & Tobago has the greatest number of bird species per square mile anywhere in the world, the largest fresh and salt-water swamps in the Caribbean (Nariva and Caroni), old and diverse forests, and the largest population of nesting Leather Back turtles.

Lorraine Pouchet at the National Carnival Commission of Trinidad & Tobago told OBG, “It would be interesting to know how many of the 40,000 to 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 Trinidad and Tobago has not yet maximised the tourism potential of its carnival, and might face competition from the many carnivals elsewhere in the world that could “jostle for our space” 

Lengthening the season beyond the carnival period also occupies the thoughts of government officials. Gerald Hadeed, the Minister of Tourism, told OBG, “We are enhancing community tourism, where we will highlight our craft, cuisine and music to showcase our diverse ethnic culture. Our cultural diversity is a major advantage over our competitors. This is one of our strong selling points in achieving an increase in arrivals.”

He noted other marketing tools for the region such as the Southern Caribbean Cruise Initiative (SCCI) which is “intended to create a year-round platform with an itinerary circuit to Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Granadines and St. Lucia. It will launch Trinidad and Tobago as the primary home port for the SCCI itinerary circuit, due to its fuel bunkering and room stock capacity, as well as creating linkages with other sectors.”

The country is not short of pulling power. The problem is to choose which form of marketing what attractions would produce the best returns.

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