What do Barranquilla, Oruro, Port of Spain and Rio de Janeiro have in common? They all host carnivals known the world over as celebrations of tradition through dances, music and dazzling costumes. But beyond their draw as multi-sensorial cultural displays, they also serve economic drivers and community builders, a potential that is leading an increasing number of government institutions and policymakers to consider and foster the many ways in which carnivals can improve lives in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Beyond the sequins, the music and invaluable tradition, carnivals are an expression of the enormous potential of the creative industries, an ecosystem that produces revenues of over US$124,000 million a year in Latin America and the Caribbean,” explains Helga Flores Trejo, principal specialist for innovation and creativity at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). “When national and local governments bet on them and promote them, they are enhancing their role as an engine of creativity and innovation.”
Some of these celebrations, such as the Carnival of Barranquilla, have already been recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage, a recognition garnered by a history dating back to the 19th and its standing as the second largest carnival in the world. For most people from Barranquilla, the carnival is part of the family traditions and an important source of income. Among them is Adolfo Maury, Director of the Danza del Congo Grande de Barranquilla, (the Congo Grande dance), a 144-year-old institution that is a Cultural Heritage of the Carnival of Barranquilla.
“I am lucky to have been born in a family filled with carnival traditions. It is in our blood,” says Adolfo. Most of his life’s milestones passed during the carnival, like the moment when his first baby tooth felt during the “Batalla de Flores” (Battle of Flowers), one of the first events of the four-day celebration.
It is this essential bond to the tradition that has made him dedicate himself to keeping alive one of the oldest traditions of the carnival, and contribute to its lasting success and appeal for visitors both local and foreign.
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NUMBERS TO CELEBRATE: CARNIVALS’ ECONOMY
“For us, the carnival is not a 4-day event nor a business: it is a lifestyle,” says Adolfo. The carnival generates thousands of temporary and permanent jobs before it formally starts, hiring in the process hundreds of local artisans, musicians, costume makers and choreographers. Just in 2018, over 2,400 musicians and 852 dancing groups were part of the events.
For four days during the first trimester of the year, Barranquilla hosts massive street parades, music festivals and parties which, in 2018 alone, meant it received 95% of hotel occupancy. This generated approximately US$18.24 million while benefiting sectors as diverse as food, retail and tourism, according to Professor Rodrigo Miranda, coordinator of entrepreneurship and innovation at MacondoLab, a center for business growth of Colombia’s Bolivar University.
These numbers are part of the wider trend of the country’s potential: In Colombia, the exports of creative industries alone exceed US $ 900 million, with a wide margin for growth, according to The Creative Economy in Latin America and the Caribbean: Measurements and Challenges , an IDB publication compiling data on creative industries in the region.
Colombia is not alone in the region in boasting such crowds. In 2019, The Carnival of Rio de Janeiro, often called “the greatest show on Earth” received 7 million visitors. As the largest and best-known carnival worldwide, the city of Rio do Janeiro received US$875 million in tourism revenues, a 26% increase from 2018.
In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago hosts the largest carnival, an exuberant two-day celebration that represents the largest cultural sector of the country. There, the carnival is a key component of the economy, backed by policies which since the early 1990’s have developed targeted support of the creative and cultural industries. Key initiatives included the creation of the National Carnival Commission of Trinidad and Tobago (NCC), tasked with the management of the carnival as an economic and cultural enterprise. It is an institution meant to preserve, collect and disseminate information and knowledge about the festivities.
HOW CARNIVALS STRENGTHEN COMMUNITIES
Understanding carnivals requires going beyond their economic significance, and taking into account their social role.
“The carnival is not just revelry and music. It is a tool for social impact and cultural promotion,” says Adolfo. “We work with children and youth to pass on our values and cultural manifestations, teaching them to appreciate our roots and autochthonous rhythms.”
Inclusiveness and diversity are at the core of carnivals. From their very origins, they emerged as celebrations for all: the rich and the poor; women and men; the religious and the non-believers. Today, carnivals make all attendees equal, blurring racial, social and gender barriers. Although they represent traditions and heritage, they are characterized by their ability to evolve with the times, expanding to encompass groups that were historically marginalized.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the carnival is the “very expression of national culture”, according to Dr. Kim Johnson, director of the National Carnival Commission of Trinidad and Tobago. These festivities not only highlight the Afro and Indo-Trinidadian cultures of the country, they also help advance the skills of young people by promoting, among others, lessons in Calypso music.
A CELEBRATION FOR DEVELOPMENT
As times evolve, carnivals – as any other tradition – need to keep up the pace, not only to secure their existence, but to find more ways to benefit the communities they serve and engage greater audiences.
“The carnivals of the future should cease to focus solely on the number of visitors they receive,” states by Matteo Grazzi, senior specialist at the IDB’s Competitiveness, Technology and Innovation Division. “In order to turn them into engines of development of their cities, local governments must strengthen specific typologies of tourism.”
While there are many opportunities to integrate carnivals and the creative industries ecosystem, efforts to do so are still incipient. For that reason, in 2018, the IDB hosted the event “Convene to Innovate: Co-Creating the Carnival of the Future” in Barranquilla, Colombia. In it, representatives of the national and local government joined members of the private sector, academics and carnival-related actors in identifying the challenges of the city’s main celebration and exploring solutions. Their findings can also benefit other carnivals of the region.
Public policy has a large role to play in increasing regulations over heritage, investment on folkloric groups and entrepreneurship as well as the advent of new economic models to safeguard carnivals. Another variable is sustainability, and the need to decrease these celebrations’ environmental impact. Technology, for its part, offers an optimistic outlook: the incorporation of innovations such as facial recognition, augmented reality and real-time translation can make carnivals safer and more accessible to populations who have not enjoyed them until today.