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

With COVID-19 restrictions largely lifted across the Caribbean, the summer Carnival season — with all of its costumes, music and dancing — has returned.

Hopes are high across the region for what is typically the biggest money-making event of the year, after many countries have seen declines in tourism due to the ongoing pandemic.

Among those hosting carnival festivities this summer — with events scattered from June through August — are Jamaica, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Barbados.

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

While Carnival in Jamaica is typically held in the spring, it was staged later this year due to the pandemic and just wrapped on Saturday.

Carnival is being held a little later this year in many countries. Traditionally, they’ve been held in the days before Lent on the Christian calendar, but now many have moved them to the summer. This year, Trinidad, considered by many to be the birthplace of Carnival, went ahead with holding festivities at the end of February, before the start of Lent. 

Festivals boost local economies

Carnival, and the tourism it brings, is vital to the local economy in Jamaica, with an estimated economic impact of $4.6 billion each year. 

“Carnival in Jamaica … is the largest economic impact event in Jamaica. So it’s No. 1 in terms of what we have for the economy,” said Kamal Bankay, the co-chair of the Carnival in Jamaica National Stakeholders Committee.

Revellers enjoy Carnival in Barbados 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 beverage, events — and when you sound them all up and what people are spending in Jamaica during the Carnival season, it’s No. 1. Bigger than anything else,” Bankay said.

Meanwhile, in Barbados, the summer festival known as Crop Over — a celebration of harvest and emancipation held in late July and early August — attracts thousands of visitors to the small island, with the final party, Grand Kadooment, attracting approximately 15,000 revellers alone.

Carnival brings in an estimated $150 million to that country each year, according to Anthony Layne, president of the Barbados Association of Masqueraders.

“This is the only sector that pulls in that money in such a short space of time,” he said. 

Pandemic gave time to re-evaluate

And in Grenada, preparations are well underway for Spicemas 2022, held from Aug. 3-10. Known as the Isle of Spice, Grenada’s carnival is also a celebration of emancipation and the annual festival brings together costume design, food, rum and pageantry.

The go-ahead by the government to hold the event this year marks a new dawn, according to Kelvin Jacob, CEO of Grenada’s Spicemas Corporation.

“The past two years were our downtime, and we used that time to re-evaluate our product,” Jacob explained. 

A woman in colourful costume dances on the street.
In some Caribbean countries, Carnival parties and parades are held in early March, or later in the spring, as was the case this year in the Bahamas, when festivities began near the end of April. But in this photo, taken March 25, a participant in a Carnival-like parade called a 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’s one of our biggest sellers and brings the largest set of people into the island.”

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

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

However, he said he wished organizers knew the festival — known as Vincy Mas — was happening sooner.

“We only knew we were having a full Vincy Mas around March of this year. And so in terms of the time allowed for us to prepare, it posed a bit of a challenge,” said Adams.

‘COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere’

Despite the hype surrounding Caribbean carnivals, COVID-19 is still spreading on the islands.

And in most Caribbean territories, there has been low vaccine uptake, 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, of Jamaica. “[But] all the large events that are happening now are even bigger than Carnival events.”

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

“You still have to be careful and you will still be concerned. We would still want all persons to take the necessary precautions and to do what is necessary to keep themselves safe.”

Women dance in a street festival.
Revellers take part in the Toronto Caribbean Carnival’s grand parade on Aug.4, 2018. Festivities in the Canadian city were cancelled for two years in a row, but they’re back this year for the first time since the start of the pandemic, with major events from July 28 to Aug. 1. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

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

Lynda Williams, president of the Barbados Association of Medical Practitioners, says particular caution must be taken with mass partying.

“COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere. And although we think when we see numbers fall that the pandemic is over, that is not the case … There are some new variants in BA.4 and BA.5 that are causing numbers to rise,” she said.

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

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