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A diamond in the rough
Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2011

By Derren Joseph
May 15, 2011

Last week I had an interesting conversation with a final-year UWI student. She was doing research on music tourism. As we spoke, we wondered to what extent is music tourism similar to what we in the Caribbean context, loosely term as festival tourism. Of course, when talking about festival tourism in our part of the Caribbean, we must acknowledge the work of Jo-anne Tull and Dr Keith Nurse. It was Nurse who in February 2010 helped us understand 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. He also helped us in our efforts to move away from visitor numbers as the primary measure of festival success. After all, 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. This discussion of music and/or festival tourism is quite a timely one, given that we recently saw Tobago hosting its Tobago Jazz Experience and St Lucia celebrating the 20th instalment of St Lucia Jazz.

According to press reports, the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) declared their event "a resounding success." The THA gave airline arrivals over the two-week period, encompassing the week before Easter week to "Easter Tuesday" as 17,670 which includes 16,000 by domestic flights. Given that arrivals for Trinidad Carnival are typically between 30,000 and 40 000, one can conclude that the THA did enjoy a successful event. Comparing THA/ TDC/Ministry of Tourism spend to visitor spend would also be helpful.

In terms of St Lucia Jazz, a couple of the airport taxi drivers that I spoke with did say that they "feel" that arrivals were down. There was also some criticism over the tourist board giving greater festival responsibility to local entities as opposed to foreign ones. But as of the week of the jazz, organisers were saying that ticket sales were up on 2010. I have yet to see final numbers in the public domain.

Regional music festivals are now quite common. It would perhaps be easier to name the islands that do not have one, rather than list the ones that do. One can only imagine that many, if not most of these have been experiencing diminishing returns on their investment (for those who bother to measure it). A big blow has also been felt by those who were dependant on selling TV rights or at least getting some measure of support from cable broadcasters. BET Jazz is no longer broadcasting and festival coverage by Tempo leaves much to be desired.

As I have said before, we have an advantage over our regional neighbours—we have a relatively wealthy domestic market. I am told that ticket sales for the Beyonce concert in 2010 were stronger than ticket sales in the previous Latin American legs of her tour. I am also told that the 2009 post summit cruises sold out relatively quickly and that we Trinis "buss de bar." There are also big Carnival fetes like Chutney Monarch and Soca Monarch.

This means that our festivals may be more sustainable than those of our regional neighbours who depend on overseas visitors to make their product commercially viable. Not that I am advocating ignoring overseas visitors. Rather, compared with our island neighbours, our festivals should be relatively less dependent on state support, should enjoy stronger partnerships with the private sector, should contribute more to the economy, employ more people and can be positioned as more "authentic." For overseas visitors, we offer a much stronger value proposition than many of our neighbours, should we choose to leverage it.

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. 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. 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 the future of our beloved country.

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