There may be still question marks over Carnival 2022, but one Caribbean entrepreneur’s seven year dream may see Carnival 2023 yet become the biggest in our history.
On July 19, Island Sea Fest officially announced a partnership with the Royal Caribbean International for an eleven night cruise during that Carnival season.
For five of those nights, the boat will be docked in Port-of-Spain, from Carnival Thursday to Carnival Tuesday, allowing the passengers to indulge in the pinnacle of the Carnival season, before they depart to resume their cruise of the Caribbean.
The collaboration is set to boost Trinidad and Tobago’s capacity for accommodation for the event by close to 4,000 rooms and potentially $40m in tourist expenditure, without affecting the number of available rooms available on the island.
The idea first came to Roger McGregor in 2014. McGregor spent almost four decades working for Cruise liners before he transitioned into developing and promoting themed cruises.
But he wanted to put together one that truly would allow patrons to experience the very best of the Caribbean.
“I first thought about this in 2014 as I was doing another themed cruise and I really wanted to it to represent the Caribbean and the culture in which I’m from and all of my ancestors. And I needed it to be around an iconic event and the first thing that came to my mind was Trinidad Carnival. The largest Carnival in the world,” said the Jamaican born McGregor.
“I saw this as a real great opportunity to be able to put more hotel rooms on the ground, well floating for those people that would love to go to Trinidad Carnival. The goal was to make it more affordable. To make it or even add it to the great experience that Carnival is and to give them an all inclusive amazing luxury hotel to come and go as they please,” he said.
McGregor spent several years since then coming in and out of Trinidad attempting to bring his dream into reality. He began negotiations which was then known the Tourism Development Company and feedback was positive. However the handshake on the deal was stymied by the Cruise lines, and more importantly their security teams.
“Now, it took me seven years to get this off the ground because ever since 9/11. Cruise Lines, they are very particular where they allow a ship to stay out of the United States, even for more than one night,” said McGregor, who continued pushing the idea to various cruise lines over the years, whilst keeping in contact with Tourism stakeholders here.
“The cruise lines themselves were happy to do this with me. They know me, they trust me. I’ve been a part of the industry for so long but there’s a division called Global Security that their one job is to keep the ship safe, whatever port it goes into, and they were sceptical about doing it for good reasons, right? I mean, you’re taking a multi multi-million dollar ship and leaving it in the port, it could become a target,” he explained.
However last December, McGregor’s Christmas gift came via a phone call, when they finally granted clearance for the Cruise to happen.
They most obvious assumption would that the decision to hold the inaugural cruise in 2023 would be tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and the current uncertainty with regard to Carnival 2022. However McGregor said the date was not based on the pandemic, but the proper timeframe required to plan and properly execute the cruise.
“To do a themed Cruise, it’s 16 months of planning. So, it’s not something that you can do in two months or three months or four months anyway. So if I look at 16 months from December (2020), that’s already taking me towards the end of 2022, to which it would have passed Carnival in 2022,” he said.
McGregor admitted the pandemic did delay the official announcement of the cruise, as he had to be sure the Cruise Ship industry had resumed proper operations after being severely affected by the pandemic.
“I’m happy that they thought about it in December. Even during that time, it was the first time there was no Carnival for Trinidad for 40 years, a cruise line has never ever been shut down. The industry has never been shut down the 70-odd years. This I’ve never dreamt that cruise lines would have their ships tied up. That never even crossed my mind that was possible,” he said about the shut down of cruise lines at the height of the pandemic. He acknowledged that marketing would have been affected had he sought to promote the event without the industry given clearance to operate.
“I wanted the industry to come back first. I’ve been sitting on this for a while and planning and strategising. When do I want to get this out to the public and really it never made sense to me to do that until cruise lines started operating again, which happened in June of this year, which is not too long ago. Also now there are 150 cruise ships out of your ceiling safely so it takes away the question from people’s mind that; Okay, you putting this out of a cruise lines and operating you really think is this going to happen?” he said.
The Cruise will start in Puerto Rico before coming to Trinidad for the Carnival days before heading to Tobago, Barbados and St Lucia and then returns to San Juan, Puerto Rico on February 26, 2023.
McGregor said the islands chosen for the initial cruise will also have Carnival themed events and fêtes which will also feature soca artistes both from Trinidad and Tobago and those islands. The Cruise Ship will have no on aboard activities during its time in Trinidad encouraging patrons to go into the island and partake in Carnival events.
Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell confirmed that McGregor had reached out to him as far back as 2018 concerning the proposed cruise.
Mitchell said, “The possibility of bringing a cruise ship to the destination for Carnival 2023 was first pitched by me at an FCCA cruise conference in 2018 which garnered tremendous interest. This planned charter for 2023 by Island Sea Fest and Royal Caribbean International is one of the positive outcomes of the meetings held with key decision makers who saw that the demand for such a cruise would have been high.”
The Tourism Minister said annually close to 40,000 persons visit Trinidad and Tobago for Carnival and the availability of accommodation and flights availability always pose serious challenges as flights and rooms (Hotels, Guest Houses, Villas, and AirBNB type accommodation) are generally booked way in advance of an upcoming Carnival season.
According to data collected by his Ministry, average visitor expenditure for the Carnival season was estimated at $10,661 TTD in 2020, so the expected expenditure generated by a 4,000 visitor capacity vessel will be a great source and contribution to the economic value of the world famous festival.
Minister Mitchell said the tourism industry was looking forward to welcoming the cruise which will feature local entertainers, music and local cuisine and local products on offer to ensure that the 4000 plus passengers experience authentic Trinidad and Tobago culture for the full eleven days.
He said the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts’ partnership obligations include digital marketing support, marketing data sharing, and providing the lead on inter agency collaboration with, for example, the Port Authority, the Ministry of National Security, and the Ministry of Works and Transport.
Mitchell explained that while tourism recovery remains slow, his Ministry is planning ahead.