Carnival: Same thing, different year
About three weeks ago, Dominica opened its carnival season with the annual parade followed by the usual calypso tents and competitions as well as a variety of pageants, including a show for extremely obese persons. As we could have predicted, we also heard the usual complaint of the impediments of low budgets and an indifferent private sector. But you cannot blame businesses for their lukewarm support of carnival - no one will enthusiastically put money into a bad product.
Obviously we need to make drastic changes to carnival if that festival is to survive to the next decade. There is also the urgent need for more funding to take the festival out of its current doldrums and become a serious competitor among Caribbean countries for scarce tourism dollars. Those much–needed funds must come from government. We often hear the argument that Dominica's carnival cannot compete with Trinidad's. But few countries in the world can, if they continue to spend a mere fraction of the amount that Trinidadians spend on carnival. For example, Dominica spends a few thousand dollars on carnival each year whereas the Government of Trinidad and Tobago spent $154 million in 2013; that is, more than twenty seven million more than it did in 2012.
One of the other changes that certain sections of the Dominican public have been requesting is a new date for the event. Over the last few years, the call reached a crescendo but the authorities are obviously pretending to be deaf or they seem to be satisfied with mediocrity. Or probably they are too scared of change or the possibility of failure. Nevertheless, they keep talking about the need for change.
We reported in February, 2004 that the then Minister of Tourism, Charles Severin, promised to assess the need for revamping carnival but not even the committee that was to recommend changes to the minister was appointed. And no one noticed. The process was repeated six years later. In 2010 Mr. Alwin Bully, the Cultural Adviser, said he was planning to set up a committee, after that year's carnival, to examine proposals for improving the festival. Mr. Bully has since left the Carnival Development Committee and, regrettably, nothing much has changed.
Obviously Dominicans are caught between the desire to hold on to that Catholic event, which seems to have gone amok, and the need to create a tourism product with the potential to attract hundreds of foreigners to our shores. The Catholic Church is also caught in a dilemma. Understandably, the Church wants to maintain its tradition but at the same time it has to disassociate itself from the image of licentiousness, killings and drunkenness that pervade carnival. Admittedly, every year Bishop Gabriel Malzaire speaks passionately about the excesses of carnival but the Bishop must know that talk alone is not the solution to the debauchery of carnival. Catholics in particular and Dominicans in general cannot expect to have their cake and eat it. The date of carnival has to be changed because the reasons for the change are overwhelmingly obvious.
A few years ago, Johnson JohnRose, a former Dominican journalist, who is presently the Communications Officer of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) based in Barbados, sent a five –page proposal to Yvor Nassief, the then Minister of Tourism, in which he argued for a change of date for carnival, for purely economic reasons. As far as we are aware, Nassief passed the letter to his deputy, Loreen Bannis-Roberts, and it died there. Undoubtedly, carnival has the potential of pumping millions of dollars into Dominica's economy annually but the festival organisers must be prepared to make some drastic changes. They should not expect change if they keep doing the same things year after year. Carnival must be seen as a cost -effective means of creating demand for tourism, adding a fillip to the entertainment sector by creating new clients, markets and media exposure, creating a new and expanding clientele for the commercial sector, such as retail stores and restaurants and generating additional business for the media and advertising industries.
Many Dominicans are aware that St. Lucia has been enjoying the benefits of a change of date for its carnival. That island changed its carnival date in 2000; it also revealed that the country wasted this incredible resource when it held the festival during the pre-Lenten period; it increased its capacity by moving it to a traditionally slow tourism period.
The economic benefit of a change of date of carnival is therefore unquestionable. But it is obvious that a change of date by itself will not make much difference to the lethargy of carnival. In any event, Dominica cannot do worse than it is doing right now. The Dominica Festivals Committee must therefore prepare an action plan to improve carnival as well as influence government to invest more in the festival to create another major tourism product.