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Without seeing a single sketch of a costume, thousands of prospective masqueraders flooded the Tribe Carnival website to book their spots for Carnival 2023 festivities.

The fact that spots were sold out just 23 hours after registration opened on Tuesday night indicates how much interest there is in a full resumption of the annual pre-Lenten festivities. Having whetted their appetites with the recent Taste of Carnival, masqueraders willingly paid pre-booking fees ranging from US$15 to US$150 to guarantee spots in their sections of choice.

The response to that pop-up event, which was open to masqueraders registered with Tribe Carnival in 2020, is only a small indicator of how much interest there is in a full-fledged celebration of T&T Carnival next year, even amid all the uncertainty and risks of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

There are six large mas bands under the Tribe Carnival banner —Tribe, Bliss, Harts, Lost Tribe, Rogue and Pure—and they make up only a percentage of the considerable number of stakeholders who are eagerly awaiting word from the authorities on 2023 Carnival.

The ball is now in the court of Culture and Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell to indicate to these many industry players the shape and scope of the 2023 edition of the festival.

Preparations for Carnival 2023 should have started on Ash Wednesday, particularly because the industry has been dormant for two years. A greater effort will be required to get systems up and running for next year, particularly with plans already well advanced for carnivals in neighbouring Caribbean islands.

Grenada’s Spicemas in August is already being promoted as a hybrid event with a mix of virtual and live activities, while Vincy mas in July will be held in COVID-19 safe zones across St Vincent and the Grenadines. St Maarten has posted a full schedule of Carnival events for its season, which starts in mid-April and other Caribbean destinations have already confirmed plans that look likely to eclipse the scaled-down activities held here over the past month.

T&T Carnival, although recognised as the mother of all Caribbean-style carnivals, was already struggling to retain a market share among all these regional events and will now have to double up on those efforts in the coming months.

Carnival is not just a cultural and social event but an important economic activity that generates about US$100 million annually and provides significant momentum to the entertainment, media, tourism and retail sectors. That is why it is essential to get things going now.

The economy suffered a blow with the cancellation of the festival in 2020, including an estimated $400 million in direct visitor spending, according to figures given by the Tourism Minister during the Budget debate on Carnival. Since Mr Mitchell already has those facts at hand, he knows how important it is to make an early start on marketing and leveraging the popularity of the country’s most lucrative cultural product.

On T&T’s path to post-COVID recovery, the importance of Carnival cannot be overlooked.

Although there was some limited success with this year’s Taste of Carnival, when it comes to the 2023 edition, the country cannot afford another last-minute decision.