February in Brazil typically conjures up images of scantily clad women shaking their bodies to the rhythm of samba, costumed bands and garish floats parading down city streets, and copious amounts of cachaça consumption.
This year, however, when the South American nation’s Carnival celebrations kick off at the end of this week, they likely will look a little different.
In cities across the expansive country, traditional celebrations have been scaled down, postponed, or canceled due to the worst recession in the past 20 years. Some cities—more than 40 small and medium-sized ones—have said they can’t justify spending big bucks on celebrations when there are basic services and infrastructure that simply need the money more.
A recent article on BBC described the situation perfectly. About halfway through the piece, the writer quotes a civil servant in Cabo Frio who works for a local school and hasn’t received a salary in nearly two months. Later, the story explains that the local assembly in Porto Ferreira voted to cancel Carnival and use the money to buy a new ambulance.
The annual Carnival celebration in Brasilia, the nation’s capital, has been canceled, too.
Don’t get us wrong: Cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo will have their Carnivals as always (and apparently, according to NPR, some parties already have begun). The parties will just be more subdued.
Take Rio, for instance. A New York Times article on the subject reported that both the city and state of Rio are in serious trouble. According to that story, the city is expecting a $1 billion budget shortfall this year, and the state likely will come up more than $6 billion short. The state also owes $10 billion in loans guaranteed by the federal government. Some reports indicate that TV Globo, the most popular television station in the country, is scaling back live broadcasts of the annual samba school competition due to high costs.
For the record books, this isn’t the first year in recent history that a poor economy forced Brazil to rethink Carnival. Based on many accounts, the economic situation was even worse in February of last year, when Business Insider first wrote about the situation.
Why is Brazil in such dire straits? Causes of the current recession range from a sudden drop in the price of oil to drought, the Zika virus outbreak, political corruption, and the profligate spending leading up to the Summer Olympics last year.
Which is to say: The recession doesn’t look like it’s ending any time soon.
For visitors who are intent on experiencing Carnival firsthand, the best strategy at this point might be to head to Rio or scour local and social media for the latest information on which Carnival celebrations are still on. Although nearly 50 cities have modified or canceled their parties, many other cities are proceeding with theirs.
Another option—especially if you won’t actually be in Brazil over the next few weeks—is to buy a shiny gold thong and throw a party yourself. Carnival is as much about the past as it is about the future. In an ideal world, honoring this history doesn’t need to be elaborate, so long as you feel it in your heart.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.