Carnival fans and tourism businesses are reeling after a series of shock announcements about Bahamas’ third annual Junkanoo Carnival.
In the space of four days in early April, the government first confirmed the carnival would go ahead as planned on 4 6 May, then put it back by two weeks and finally restored it to the original dates. Costume bands, hoteliers, cruise operators and many others were left bewildered by the rapid succession of U-turns by Prime Minister Perry Christie’s Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) government.
While the carnival bands in Nassau, on the island of New Providence, welcomed the return to the 4 6 May programme, doubt remains whether it will go ahead on the island of Grand Bahama, where carnival was meant to begin on 28 29 April. Grand Bahamians claim that the efforts of local organiser Ginger Moxey mean that its version of the carnival, centred on the cruise hub of Freeport, is more successful than the capital’s effort.
The cause of the upheaval is an impending general election. Bahamas is meant to hold elections every five years. The last was held on 7 May 2012, and this year PM Christie has come under increasing pressure from the opposition Free National Movement (FNM) to announce the date. When it became obvious the election would have to be held close to Junkanoo Carnival, campaign group We March Bahamas took to the streets to demand it be delayed – or cancelled altogether. Facing heavy losses if this were to happen, the Bahamas Carnival Band Owners’ Association threatened to hold a fete “right where the march ends”.
Just 24 hours after carnival organiser Bahamas National Festival Commission (BNFC) confirmed the attendance of Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, Denise Belfon and Beres Hammond at the event on 4 6 May, Christie announced that the carnival would be postponed. On 3 April he revealed that it would now take place on 18 20 May. Businesses, bands and organisers warned that this could leave the country taking a hit of up to a $1 million in cancellation fees and lost business. So, the following day, Christie switched direction again and put carnival back to its original place on the calendar.
Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival has been mired in controversy from the start. The PLP introduced the event in 2015 to stimulate tourism and boost small businesses. Traditional junkanooers decried it as an alien import that sidelines Bahamas’ distinctive end-of-year Junkanoo celebrations. Many other Bahamians feel the carnival is a waste of money.
Although the first two editions proved popular with Bahamians themselves, Junkanoo Carnival has failed to generate the hoped-for tourism boost. This is largely down to poor promotion overseas, Soca News repeatedly tried to find someone to talk about the event on the Bahamas stand at London’s World Travel Market trade show, but without success.
If it wins the election, the FNM has said it will privatise the carnival and put more money into Junkanoo itself, including creating a Junkanoo theme park and promoting an annual Goombay summer festival. Other plans include setting up a Ministry of Culture and a national arts council, and establishing a national museum of Bahamian history and culture.
The current tourism minister seems to agree, saying that his government should stop investing in the carnival and let a private organisation run it as a commercial enterprise. Finance minister Michael Halkitis retorted that the state subsidy has already been reduced from $12.9 million in 2015 to $5 million this year. According to the Tribune newspaper, 39,700 people attended the festival in Nassau last year and 21,000 in Grand Bahama.