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The Business of Carnival Joining the Dots
Posted: Thursday, July 8, 2010

By Derren Joseph
July 08, 2010

Last week, the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) together with Mr Sayeed Emamali hosted a conference on the Business of Carnival at the National Academy for the Performing Arts. It brought together an impressive list of stakeholders from the industry and the debate did not disappoint. The Permanent Secretaries from both the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism, and the Ministry of Science Technology and Tertiary Education attended the opening session of the first day. Minister Winston "Gypsy" Peters made a brief appearance. I see this conference as very well timed given that we have a new government open to new ideas.

A couple weeks ago, I was having a robust debate in the gym, Fitness Centre, one morning. The topic was tourism and my friend was saying that we need to develop our physical infrastructure to bring it on par with competing destinations. My view was that while we do need to upgrade physical infrastructure, priority should given (especially since funds are not unlimited) to softer "product development" opportunities – especially community tourism, festivals and stakeholder institutional strengthening. It is about picking the lowest hanging fruit first. This is undoubtedly a hot debate now within the wider industry.

So it is with this mindset I attended the UTT conference last week. Participants understood the task ahead of us from an economic point of view. We as a nation, have almost all our eggs in a single basket – the energy industry. Our task is simply to diversify. But while niche industries / sectors have a role to play, the "holy grail" is to develop an industry / sector that will generate billions of U.S. dollars- not just millions of TT dollars. That is, if we want to maintain or increase our national wealth. The conference left most convinced that the "holy grail" is to be found in our arts, particularly the carnival arts.

Some contributors referenced work done by Keith Nurse and Jo-anne Tull, who were unfortunately absent. I say unfortunately because they are perhaps two of the strongest advocates for the ability of festivals (of which carnival is arguably the most popular) to drive economic growth and increase employment. Their research has taken them across the region and beyond; and the statistics that come from their research are encouraging.

A popular example is that of St Lucia Jazz. St Lucia had a problem – the month of May saw low tourist arrivals and they wanted to do something about it. This Jazz Festival turned May from a month with the lowest hotel occupancy levels to a month with one of the highest. I found a presentation from Dr Nurse available on the web, where in 1998 the St Lucia government is said to have spent (or should I say, invested) US$1.55 million and in turn, enjoyed visitor spend of US$14.15 million. That was way back then – I would assume that the return has increased beyond the US$14.15 million experienced in 1998. The St Lucia Tourist Board estimates that the media value alone of their Jazz Festival, exceeds their investment.

In 1998, St Lucia Jazz had just under 10 000 visitor arrivals while Trinidad carnival had 32 000. Yet the total spend of both was about US$14 million. But as it is presently structured, Trinidad carnival is perhaps more about us as locals and diaspora (known as VFR in the industry) as opposed to general overseas visitors (as appears to be the case with St Lucia Jazz). Yet despite this focus, Dr Nurse's research published in the press in February this year, reported that mas players spend about $93.4 million, and fetes earn over $500 million as part of a total carnival economic contribution of $1.3 billion.

So we see the potential right there. A diamond in the rough that is already valued in the TT billions. Maybe if we cut and polish it a bit, it would easily be valued in the US billions. As Josanne Leonard reminded us at the conference – let us join the dots. This is beyond tourism. Rather an entire socio-economic developmental policy could be wrapped around our festivals (I am seeing at least one major festival each month) which includes Eid, Divali, Borough Day, We Beat, Tobago Heritage etc.

What about sports? I am also a big advocate of sports tourism and would argue that large events like the FIFA Under 17 Women's World Cup are similar to festivals. My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country. As always, I end by saying that despite our challenges, we are so blessed to live in this beautiful land. Let us continue to have the audacity of hope in our country, as we embark upon the next chapter in our nation's history.

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