For La Toya Knights, coming to Toronto for the Caribbean Carnival is a homecoming.
"I missed it, it's definitely a highlight of my year," she says.
The mother of two is originally from the city, but has lived in Atlanta for 18 years. She's returning after a three-year hiatus due to COVID, reuniting with family and friends and playing Mas, when she will be dressed in costume and dancing in the Grande Parade on Saturday.
The Toronto Caribbean Carnival's Grande Parade is celebrating its 55th anniversary, and will be taking over Lakeshore Boulevard and the Exhibition grounds. According to the event's website, "the Caribbean tradition of parading through the street was founded in celebration of freedom and emancipation from slavery."
Several events will also be hosted across the city all weekend.
Knights says she's traveled to other places to participate in Carnival including Trinidad, but says Carnival in Toronto is the best she's ever experienced.
"Anyone I've talked to outside of Toronto, anyone I've talked to in the States, if they've had exposure to [Carnival], they always say it was the best time," she says.
She says travelling to Toronto is not just about participating in the parade, but also sharing the experience with her children.
"I bring my kids and I introduce them to my Caribbean heritage and culture and try to educate them on what it's about so they can take on these traditions," she says.
"Everyone should come experience it. It's one of the best carnivals in the world and it's just a great showcase of the full Caribbean experience and culture."
Favourite part is 'being in the mix': DJ
Tarik Thompson— also known as DJ Jazzy T— has made it a point to travel to Carnival every other year to take in the festivities and reconnect with Canadian family members.
Thompson says he splits his time between Miami and Jamaica, and Toronto's Caribbean Carnival is always an event he looks forward to attending.
"I'm really excited to see what it's going to be like for the first time after COVID," he says.
Thompson will be spinning a set on Saturday night at the Sheraton hotel on Queen Street W. as part of the Carnival lineup.
"My favourite part was always being in the mix, with mixed cultures and seeing everybody come together," he says.
"You have a whole year of people going to work, going to school...there's a lot of stress in the world. When you have something like [Carnival], when you have days of events, its very important to unwind. That's the word we Caribbean people use, unwind. Enjoy yourself and don't think about those things."
Carnival 'a catalyst' for Toronto tourism
Carnival is considered one of the "signature events for Toronto," according to Andrew Weir, executive vice-president of destination development at Destination Toronto.
"Events like this are some of the most important assets, a community or a destination has, which is these world famous events that people travel for," he says. "Carnival [is] so well-established and so well known in communities around the world that people do travel."
"And when you have something as celebratory as Carnival, I think it'll really bring out thousands and thousands of people."
Despite Carnival being a draw for international travellers, Weir says he expects international numbers won't be as high this year as they've seen in the past, as the city's tourism industry takes time to return to pre-pandemic levels.
"The majority of the events right now are being enjoyed by residents of Toronto, southern Ontario," he says. "The international markets, we do need those visitors to come back as well, but I'm confident that that they will over time."
"You need your return customers to come back," he says. "Those visitors that have been here many times before are important, not only because of the business they bring when they travel themselves, but they also help stimulate new demand and that's so important for a destination."