About Tobago Tourism

About Tourism Tobago

Tobago is a special place. With a culture and lifestyle to suit. But, why is this so?

First, it is about inherited history and cultural heritage that goes back before records were kept. The indigenous peoples, and then later the imported mainly black and Indian slaves and indentured labourers who had all fought hard to preserve their cultural values. Despite the oppressive and often brutal practices of the overlords and plantation owners they endured. So they endow these things with great importance.

Tobagonians are welcoming and always friendly. However, they learned, and learned well, to resist and cohere in subtle ways. Their own ancient practices have given way to more modern expressions but the ancient rhythms are still present and form a big part of the Tobagonian personality. This is both an attraction, if you want to experience local culture and a disappointment, if you are a developer. Tobagonians strongly believe, and rightly so, that their land, their beaches and their heritage belong to them. They defend this 'ownership' and are hard pressed to accept development that interferes with this underlying tenet.

The colonial exploitation of Tobago was mainly by foreigners (read British), for their own profit. Their only concern for the slaves or indentured people they brought to Tobago was as a tool to generate this profit. The one exception was the reservation of the Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve by the Governor, Sir William Young, on April 13th 1776. He did so to protect the area as a source of pure water and what a foresight it was. Today, it is one of the oldest legally protected rainforest areas in the world and forms a big part of what many Tobagonians are working hard to protect. It has become deeply infused into the people's way to see their island. So much so that UNESCO, in 2020, has declared northeast Tobago as a biosphere reserve. At least some of the cultural values that Tobagonians hold clearly descend from this original and quite creative decision, nearly 250 years ago.

Today, with the gradual lifting of colonial bondage, this natural culture and lifestyle still shines on. This protective spirit, and the results of it become more noticeable the more you move away from the heavily touristed areas. In fact, there is a pronounced divide between the western end of the island, where most of the tourists frequent and the eastern end, where tourists visit but mostly don't stay. So to get the true Tobago feeling, one must take in the less travelled parts of the island. The villages, such as Castara, Charlotteville, Delaford, Roxborough and Speyside all present in their own unique Tobagonian way.

The beauty, character and personality of the island of Tobago are deeply embedded in the local psyche and to visit there means some of this merges into your own takeaway and you don't forget these things. Respect is a mutual thing and as long as Tobagonians feel that you respect their culture and place, they will reciprocate, but watch out if you don't.

Recent history clearly demonstrates this protective culture, where, in 2007 it became illegal for foreigners to own land except for building lots in a couple of small enclaves. This was further buttressed with the rejection of the Sandals/Beaches proposal in 2016. Afra Raymond became the champion of the resistance but there were others too. In fact, his steadfast pursuit of the government resulted in numerous revelations about the way that this type of development is planned. Some may even say underhanded and deceptive but no doubt far too expensive for such a small place. The project was cancelled and it was a good thing because Tobago's infrastructure, biosphere and population would have been deeply compromised by it.

Environment Tobago, based in Buccoo and Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC) are also key to raising of awareness of environmental issues as well as speaking out against harmful tourism infrastructure or any other infringement on Tobagonians' rights to protect and sustain their homeland.

Now, it appears less likely that any similar large scale development will take place, and if it does the people will demand to be at the front of the line to be consulted. It also makes sense from a geographical perspective, I mean, why would someone want to fly from USA, Great Britain or Canada to stay in an all-inclusive resort where identical accommodations already exist a much shorter distance away, in Jamaica and Antigua, for example.

Tobagonians are indeed deeply protective of their island but they are also pragmatic and well grounded in these values. It make sense when you know that in a world where temporality and fast buck development are mainstays, Tobago will continue to preserve itself for the generations not yet born. What's not to like about that? If you're a Tobagonian, you'll expect people to just 'know', like they do.

What this means for visitors to Tobago

Tobagonians love to celebrate their culture and they do so in the form of a series of festivals. There are more celebrations in Tobago, about 20 annually, than almost any other Caribbean country. Many of the festivals take place away from the high tourist season, so it is quite clear that they have been developed before the awareness of tourism did. This has been the outgrowth of great year round weather and a widely diverse racial mixture that is the true melting pot nature of both Trinidad and Tobago. There's nowhere else on Earth with such a rich cultural blend that goes back many generations.

These festivals are born out of the local people's own recognition of their cultural values and have evolved into wider celebrations that all Tobagonians participate in. Naturally, visitors are also encouraged to participate. The main festivals are Tobago Carnival, the Tobago Heritage Festival and the Tobago Blue Food Festival. They are indeed a Tobago specialty and an expression of the unique culture that is Tobago. If the 'experience' is your quest, there is much to be learned here.

Tobago Carnival (28th October 2022 - 30th October 2022)

Tobago Carnival is HUGE, only just slightly lower key than in Trinidad. It is the biggest party, or actually parties, in Tobago, taking place in Scarborough, Crown Point and Roxborough simultaneously. From 2022, Tobago has chosen a new time to celebrate their own version of Carnival. Beginning before dawn and going for the full three days, Tobago Carnival is similar to other parties world wide and it reflects the local culture with very loud music and street parties like no where else, except possibly Trinidad or Rio. Literally everyone gets into Tobago Carnival, you have no choice really; its dam hard to avoid. Many people skip work, so don't expect to get anything done. Some even return to work to find their job no longer exists.

Folkloric characters such as the fire breathing Blue Devil, Gang Gang Sarah and Jumbies appear in the Bacchanal amongst the crowd, reviving old superstitions that go as far back as the black African origins of the largest Tobago population group. Powder paint is a big part of the 'Mas' everywhere, so don't bother dressing up. But do wear shoes as sandals may not protect from the broken glass and other detritus on the road.

Pan music, a Trinidadi invention, which used old oil drums to create musical instruments can be heard everywhere, not just in the street but also in pan yards around the island in the months leading up to the Carnival days. Tobago pan music must be experienced in this way to truly appreciate it.

Preparations for Carnival begin almost as soon as this year's festival is over; in creating new costumes as well as the recording of new 'Road March' songs to blast out of the gas generator powered, 10,000 Watt sound systems mounted on the trucks that carry each celebrant group in the Carnival parades. Tobago's pop music is truly unique and, if you listen for it, you will hear a beat and instrumental expression that is subtly their own.

While it may seem like a wildly loose, unorganized mess, in fact it is serious business at the same time. Judging takes place amongst the melee and awards are handed out for the best overall performance. And the clean up after takes place within a few hours. Daily life carries on with no big complaining.

Tobago Jazz Experience (April)

Jazz and world music in its length and breadth come to various parts of Tobago every April during the festival of the Tobago Jazz Experience. Music lovers converge to enjoy eleven days of jazz, world beat, salsa, Latin, R&B, soca, calypso, reggae and many other forms of contemporary music.

The festival offers a great opportunity for visitors to have a unique experience of jazz, cultural heritage, local culinary delights and historic perspective offering music, landscape and ambiance. (Destination TnT)

Buccoo Goat Race and Crab Festival

Who would have thought that a goat race would be a big deal? Only in Tobago, of course. No shortage of imagination here. And they make it so, with practice for this competition taking place all over the island where the runners, with their goats can be seen year round. Easter celebrations are among the biggest social gatherings in the annual calendar, along with Carnival, Christmas and Easter. This is also the highest season for visitors from Trinidad and the alluring scents of curry and spices are everywhere. Goat racing was originated by a Barbadian in 1925:

"Goat racing is a sport that originated in Buccoo, Tobago, The sport has been continued by some legends in Townsville. Started in 1925 by a Barbadian, Samuel Callendar, goat racing historically occurs on the Tuesday after Easter day, which is known as 'Easter Tuesday' in Trinidad and Tobago and is an unofficial public holiday in Tobago." (Aspiring Minds Foundation)

Sunday School

Also in Buccoo, a weekly Bacchanal of food, music, dance and any other form of merriment you can think of. The action commences in the evening but may still be going as the Monday sun rises. Be prepared because there are few limits on what might happen. Tobagonians know how to throw a party like nowhere else.

Tobago Heritage Festival (mid-July/early August)

Old Time Wedding, traditional costumes, music and food are at the centre of the Tobago Heritage Festival. This is Tobago's own opportunity to revitalise and remember its cultural underpinnings and to teach them to the young people. The festival events and shows take place in villages all over Tobago. Since this is the low tourist season as well as during the wettest part of the year, not many tourists are present, compared to Carnival but those who are there are encouraged to share and participate. This is the modern depiction of traditional cultural values representative of early Tobagonian people's own daily lives, separate from the colonial one.

"Tobagonians are very proud of their culture and history namely The Tobago Heritage Festival that occurs every year from the middle of July to early August. Villagers from different communities comes out in their glory to perform with folk singing, dancing and feasting. The villagers dress up in traditional costumes that depict village life from the early 1900's . During the year each Community has its own festival. Each Villages have different events which range from ole time mas, ole time dance, old time wedding, limbo and jig to stick fighting". (Tobago Heritage Festival @ TnT Island by Roger James, Winnipeg, Canada)

Read this introduction to Tobago Heritage Festival @ Discover TnT

Song, dance, music and mouth-watering cuisine of Tobago, there’s only one place to find it all – Tobago Heritage Festival. Beginning in the year 1986 as a pilot project, the festival was conceptualised to preserve the cultural traditions of Tobago and by all means has been doing so each year through selected themes.

Tobago Heritage Festival by Ins & Outs of Trinidad & Tobago Magazine, 2020

During the lead-up to Emancipation Day, Tobago is abuzz with excitement. It’s time for the Tobago Heritage Festival! For two weeks, villages square-up against village in friendly competition. Who hosts the best events? Who draws the biggest crowd? And most importantly, whose chefs have the “sweetest hand”? There’s only one way to find out. Indulge in the sweet and spicy local delicacies and witness recreations of ‘long-time’ village life. The rhythms and traditions handed down through generations make the allure of the island irresistible.

Tobago Heritage Festival culminates on Emancipation Day, August First with a Festival Parade featuring many of the actors and participants from the various local celebrations that have been held throughout the island from the previous two weeks or so. Cultural representations in song and dance feature prominently.

Tobago Blue Food Festival (October)

A celebration of food. Tobagonians love their food and are very proud of their culinary achievements from very simple ingredients. Focussed on the dasheen root, which has traces of blue, hence the name, in it when it has been cooked. The cooks and chefs have adapted the cooking this root vegetable in a myriad of imaginative and delicious ways.

What is Blue Food? The term "Blue Food" is associated with the ground provision: Dasheen. Dasheen is a tall- growing tropical plant that resembles the ornamental elephant-ear plant and cocoyam. The leaves, stems and the underground part of the dasheen plant are edible. Also known as Taro, Dasheen is called Blue Food by locals as some versions of the root vegetable turn varying shades of blue and indigo when cooked. (Blue Food Festival @ Visit Tobago) 

Tobago Dragon Boat Festival

Tobago has its own version of the Trinidad Dragon Boat Festival, celebrating Chinese people's in Trinidad & Tobago, held annually in June and has become a Tobago Calendar Event. See also: THA Info from 2017.

Tobago Harvest Festivals

Harvest festivals take place in smaller villages all over the island. If you are lucky enough to be present during the time when harvest is being celebrated, you will share in house to house visitations and a total ambience that is truly something special. Local people open their doors, share their food, drink and stories to bring the traditional values of their culture to a level of knowing deeply what is meant by giving thanks for bountiful food. There is little chance a Tobagonian will ever starve with root vegetables, mangoes, kumquats, bananas and breadfruit almost ubiquitous on the island.

Dancing the Cocoa

At one time Tobago had a robust cocoa industry. With the Trinitario variety of cocoa tree as it almost accidental mainstay, this cocoa produces a delicate chocolate which is renowned worldwide. Every year, when the cocoa harvest is taken in, it must be processed fairly quickly and locals practice what is known as 'Dancing the Cocoa' as part of this process. The result is the cocoa bean itself.

While not a festival, like the other festivals, it is indeed a celebration of something that is characteristic to Tobago. It would come as no surprise if it became yet another Tobago festival. Regardless, a visit to the Tobago Cocoa Plantation is a real eye opener for the chocolate connoisseur. Here one will come to appreciate what it takes to make great chocolate, the knowledge required and the many hardships of growing and harvesting cocoa.

Christmas and Easter

Celebrating Christmas begins in September and is like, well, very nearly as big as Carnival. Soca parang music, Christmas foods — ham with chow chow and sorrel and ginger beer, special decorations and lights; where people prepare their homes with new paint, window treatments and so on to welcome visitors, are everywhere. This is when many ex-pats and the diaspora return 'home', adding to the atmosphere.

Easter is the other major event on the Christian calendar and Tobagonians celebrate this festival and holiday with reverence and special events, such as the 'Buccoo Goat Race and Crab Festival' that are held all over Tobago. Tobago is the destination for many visitors from Trinidad to come, relax and cook so the island is quite busy during this time with the appetising smells of well spiced foods wafting everywhere.

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Tobago festivals also include Emancipation Day (August 1st), the Tobago International Game Fishing Tournament (May), the Tobago International Cycling Classic (September / October), Valentine's Day and several other religious and cultural celebrations. Festivals take place year long all over the island. In fact, there have even known to be impromptu celebrations that just spring out of the local people's desire to have a party, so be ready, its certain to be a good time.

Once again it needs to be said that deeply embedded within these festivals is the Tobagonian spirit. While there's only about 60,000 of them, the spirit that imbues every one with the knowledge and will to protect their island (The Beach belong to We!) and its natural beauty regardless of how much money tourism can bring in. They are actually ahead of most of the world when it comes to turning away from mass tourism, or over-tourism as it is now known. And get lost if you don't like it. Ecotourism is close to brick and mortar here. This may seem like a contradiction but don't expect to be in an all-inclusive in Jamaica or the Dominica Republic, it just ain't so.

The current pandemic has decimated tourism everywhere but in Tobago visitor numbers have been quite low for many years. Except for the daily "sea bath" they didn't get to enjoy, for most it may seem just like any other day. Tobagonians take it in stride and carry on with their daily lives as best they can. Rich or poor alike, they are amongst the luckiest people on the planet — and they know how to live. Tobago is a small island with a small population but they are imbued with a culture to celebrate.

More about Tobago Festivals

A Land of Endless Festivals

All to See and Do for Easter in Tobago (Visit Tobago)

Calendar of major Trinidad & Tobago festivals, events & public holidays

Divali and Ramleela (Discover TnT)

Easter traditions in Tobago by Dr Rita Pemberton, TnT Newsday, 2021

Eid al-Fitr (Discover Trinidad & Tobago)

Events @ Visit Tobago | Tobago Beyond: Official Tobago Tourism

Festival and Holidays in Trinidad & Tobago by Roger James
Trinidad & Tobago is rich in culture and diversity in terms of the many festivals and holidays that occur thoughout the year, below is a list of the more common festivals/holidays in T&T with a brief description.

Festivals and Religions: Island Experiences - Trinidad & Tobago cultural, sightseeing, eco, nature and carnival tours.

Tobago Festivals: facebook | Instagram | twitter feed | YouTube
We represent the beauty and culture of Tobago through our events and festivals which highlight our rich heritage and keep our traditions alive.

Tobago Updates YouTube Videos include hours of festival coverage and news.

Note: These examples of searches for "tobago festival" or "tobago heritage festival" on YouTube delivers plenty of results.


Alan Barry Ginn eMail: info[at]wittreport[dot]com

Ottawa, Canada

© Alan Barry Ginn, July (January) 2022 UN Sustainable Development Goals logo Trademarks are the property of their respective rights holder. Oversights are my own fault.