Summer carnival season returns to the Caribbean after a 2-year pandemic hiatus

With COVID-19 restrictions largely lifted in the Caribbean, the summer carnival season – with all its costumes, music and dancing – is back.

Hopes are high across the region for what is usually the biggest money-making event of the year, after many countries saw a drop in tourism due to the ongoing pandemic.

Among those holding carnival festivities this summer – with events scattered from June to August – include Jamaica, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Barbados.

A celebration of Caribbean culture, festival-goers can expect big street parades and parties, with electrifying music, colorful costumes and dancing, and events centered around local food and drink.

While Carnival in Jamaica usually takes place in the spring, it was held later this year due to the pandemic and just ended on Saturday.

Carnival takes place later this year in many countries. Traditionally they took place in the days leading up to Lent on the Christian calendar, but now many have moved them to summer. This year, Trinidad, considered by many to be the birthplace of Carnival, continued its festivities in late February, before the start of Lent.

Festivals boost local economies

Carnival and the tourism it brings are vital to Jamaica’s local economy, with an estimated economic impact of $4.6 billion per year.

“Carnival in Jamaica…is the biggest economic impact event in Jamaica. So it’s #1 in terms of what we have for the economy,” said Kamal Bankay, co-chairman of the national parties committee. carnival stakeholders in Jamaica.

Partygoers enjoy the Barbados Carnival in 2019. (Michron Robinson)

Jamaica reported more than 1.5 million visitors in 2021 – a number that is expected to be higher this year, with the return of Carnival.

“Flights, hotels, ground transportation, food and drink, events – and when you poll them all and what people spend in Jamaica during carnival season, that’s No. 1. Biggest than everything else,” Bankay said.

Meanwhile, in Barbados, the summer festival known as Crop Over – a celebration of harvest and empowerment held in late July and early August – draws thousands of visitors to the tiny island, with the final party, Grand Kadooment, attracting around 15,000 revelers alone.

The carnival brings about $150 million to this country each year, according to Anthony Layne, president of the Barbados Association of Masqueraders.

“It’s the only sector that’s attracting this money in such a short time,” he said.

The pandemic has given time to reassess

And in Granada, preparations are well under way for Spicemas 2022, which will be held from August 3 to 10. Known as the Spice Isle, Grenada’s Carnival is also a celebration of emancipation and the annual festival brings together costume design, food, rum and pageantry.

The green light from the government to hold the event this year marks a new dawn, according to Kelvin Jacob, CEO of Granada’s Spicemas Corporation.

“The last two years have been our downtime, and we’ve used that time to re-evaluate our product,” Jacob explained.

A woman in a colorful costume is dancing in the street.
In some Caribbean countries, carnival parties and parades take place in early March, or later in the spring, as was the case this year in the Bahamas, when the festivities began towards the end of April. But in this photo, taken on March 25, a participant in a carnival-like parade called Junkanoo entertains the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their visit to Nassau. (Toby Melville/Getty Images)

“Carnival is very important to our tourism. It is one of our biggest sellers and attracts the most people to the island.”

Jacob, who has worked in carnival planning for more than 32 years, says many visitors to the island only visit Grenada because of the Spicemas.

Ricardo Adams, president of the Carnival Development Corporation for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, is also looking forward to a strong rebound in carnival tourism this year.

However, he said he wanted organizers to know the festival – known as Vincy Mas – was happening sooner.

“We only knew we had a full Vincy Mas around March of this year. And so in terms of the time we had to prepare, that was a bit of a challenge,” Adams said.

“COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere”

Despite the hype surrounding Caribbean carnivals, COVID-19 continues to spread across the islands.

And in most Caribbean territories, vaccination rates have been low, with Jamaica and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines having less than half of their populations fully vaccinated.

“There is a general concern about spikes in numbers because entertainment events and carnivals are no different,” said Bankay, from Jamaica. “[But] all the big events that are happening right now are even bigger than the carnival events.”

“We live in a COVID-19 environment and life must go on,” said Layne, from Barbados.

“You always have to be careful and you will always be worried. We would always want all people to take the necessary precautions and do what is necessary to protect themselves.”

Women dance at a street festival.
Revelers take part in the grand parade of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival August 4, 2018. The festivities in the Canadian city have been canceled for two consecutive years but are back this year for the first time since the pandemic began, with major events from July 28 to August 1. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which oversees the Caribbean, COVID-19 cases in the region fell by 5.2% in the first week of July. But PAHO also warned that Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants were “leading to new infections across the Americas.”

Lynda Williams, president of the Barbados Doctors Association, says particular caution should be taken with mass parties.

“COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere. And while we think that when we see the numbers dropping the pandemic is over, it’s not… There are new variants in BA.4 and BA.5s that cause numbers to rise,” she said.

“We just have to be very, very careful.”

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