As the global community grapples with an insidious pandemic, creative and tourism sectors worldwide have already incurred substantial losses due to significant economic contraction, triggered by the suspension of events and the closure of borders.
Undoubtedly, stakeholders within the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival industry have already begun to wrestle with some inconvenient truths based on the economic implications of Covid-19.
The message from global governance health organisations and governments is ‘flatten the curve’, which we know deals with managing transmission of the virus so as to not inundate the health care systems of the world with infected persons.
It is clear, however, that flattening the curve only focuses on maintaining manageable numbers at hospitals and treatment facilities, not on restoring normalcy. One can reasonably infer that a return to unrestricted, social interactions and unhindered movement will only happen when a vaccine is developed and widely distributed—and the jury is still out on how soon one can be ready.
The World Health Organization indicated that several countries are ‘racing to develop a vaccine’ to broadcast a sense of optimism in response to the possibility of a protracted quarantine. However, epidemiology experts like Dr Anthony Fauci framed the process in a more sobering fashion—proposing a timeline of between twelve and eighteen months.
If fate is on the side of mankind, in the form of a determined (or lucky) medical fraternity or deus ex machina, and a safe vaccine is developed allowing for mass vaccination by years end, then we may have a Carnival in 2021.
If we work with the standard and more realistic timeline of vaccine production, however, Carnival 2021 is not likely to be mounted. After all, Carnival production timelines require bands to start working soon after the season ends in preparation for the next year.
The implications of cancelling Carnival are far-reaching, as the economic benefits of the festival are diffused over multiple sectors. Make no mistake, the impact of the cancellation of Carnival for one year, particularly in these current circumstances, will be exponentially more severe than all the years without it combined during the world war—a comparison many pundits and laymen usually reference when discussing the possibility.
Rescheduling the festival to later in the year, as was done during the polio epidemic of 1972, may not be logistically feasible due to the imponderability of an ‘all clear’ signal that the virus has been successfully contained.
If the epidemiologists are right, our next Carnival season may very well be in 2022.
It is expected that new conventions will emerge to mitigate continued spread of the virus. International travel will most likely require proof of immunisation from Covid-19 (Wallace et al, 2014; World Health Organisation, 2000), so the rate of vaccination across the United States, Canada, Europe and the Caribbean—from where most of our Carnival visitors originate—will directly impact visitor traffic.
Even with high rates of vaccination, the virus and the forecasted economic downturn will present challenges for the Trinidad and Tobago tourism industry in the short term, due to a possible decline in visitors to the island in the first year or two after the virus has subsided, as was evidenced with the SARS epidemic in 2003 (Pine and McKercher, 2004) and with the global financial crisis in 2009 (UNWTO, 2020).
If a statistically sufficient number of Trinidad and Tobagonians are not vaccinated at least seven to eight months prior the festival, which is usually when bands are launched and the momentum for the festival catalysed, significantly reduced visitor numbers are a certainty.
Even if the Trinidad and Tobago government successfully rolls out a vaccination drive, a robust marketing campaign will be necessary to assuage the fears of potential tourists, whether those foreigners are vaccinated or not.
Visitor arrivals to Trinidad had already reached a new low in 2018 of 33,872 people (GORTT, 2018). To put visitor impact into context, Carnival tourist expenditure generated an average of about TT$323 million per year between 2014 and 2018, according to the Central Statistical Office (GORTT, 2018), based on an average of 36,000 visitors per year during that same period, and accounts for roughly one third of the alleged TT$1 billion in annual revenue the festival was reported to generate.
The TT$3.5 billion budgetary shortfall that the Minister of Finance communicated in early March and the expected increase in national debt that will be incurred to combat Covid, paint an even grimmer picture for the festival, as subventions and the injection of public funds into the Carnival industry are also likely to be substantially reduced.
Economists and political scientists around the world have already begun bracing the world for a post-Covid recession, and Trinidadian intellectuals believe the same will apply here (Farrell, 2020; Shah 2020).
Domestic participation in the festival will surely be affected by increased rates of unemployment. The private sector will undoubtedly be less eager and, in some cases, unable to provide their usual levels of sponsorship.
This combination of economic challenges will have direct, deleterious effects on the quality of Carnival products, the scale of the festival and flagship events, and employment in the Carnival sector, as producers and contractors will have to work with much smaller budgets than usual.
Beginning stakeholder discussions on the future of the festival as soon as possible is critical to the survival of the multitude of carnival entrepreneurs that drive and support the festival.
This is also a unique opportunity to re-evaluate arrangements for managing and scheduling the festival, reimagine its most valuable components and engage a new generation of creative minds, technologists and policy enthusiasts, whose unique perspectives may very well be integral to its success, as we look toward the horizon.
The festival can only truly become an essential factor in the country’s economic diversification agenda and post-Covid rebound, if this opportunity is seized post-haste.
Farrell, T (2020). Dr Farrell: Gov’t must reform labour market now, as rising unemployment meets global pandemic. [Online] Available HERE [Accessed 31 March 2020].
Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (2018). Carnival visitors spent $318 million in 2018. online. Accessed Friday 3rd April, 2020. [Online] Available HERE. [Accessed 4th April 2020]
Pine, R and McKercher, B (2004). The impact of SARS on Hong Kong’s tourism industry. International journal of contemporary hospitality management, Vol. 16 No. 2, pp. 139-143.
Shah, R (2020). After crisis, food rationing? [Online] Available HERE [Accessed 4 April 2020]
Wallace, GS, Seward, JF, Pallansch, MA, & Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). Interim CDC guidance for polio vaccination for travel to and from countries affected by wild poliovirus. MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report, 63(27), pp. 591–594.
World Health Organization (2000). Vaccination requirements and health advice, situation as 1 January 2000. International travel and health, pp. 108
World Trade Organization (2020). Impact assessment of the covid-19 outbreak on international tourism. [Online] Available HERE [Accessed 4 April 2020]