by Tanya Mok
Autumn is arguably the most beautiful season in Toronto, but even clear skies and above-average temperatures weren’t enough to keep Samantha Beniprashad-Maharaj and her husband Ryan Maharaj from leaving the country to get married this past October.
Before he had even proposed in June 2015, Ryan, 33, and Samantha, 30, had decided they wanted to have a destination wedding. Samantha says they wanted to cut on costs and, more importantly, “eliminate stress and chaos.” A year-and-a-half of planning later, they flew to Jamaica and were married at an all-inclusive resort in Montego Bay.
As a Guyanese-Canadian couple, Samantha, a human resources representative, and Ryan, a loss prevention investigator, are just one of many young couples from Canada’s ethnic communities opting for a destination wedding instead of a local one.
Getting married abroad has become an attractive option for those who’d rather turn their special day into a vacation while getting more for their money. Unlike their parents’ generation, these couples care less about guest count and more about turning their special day into a big getaway. Vacation resorts now make it easier and more cost-effective than ever for couples to have a destination wedding, pleasing young and old alike by accommodating cultural wedding traditions abroad. Tara Soloway, co-founder of Toronto-based agency Luxe Destination Weddings, says the number of requests for cultural marriage ceremonies abroad have increased over the past two years.
Of all the weddings her agency now manages, Soloway says, 25 to 30 per cent require traditional cultural elements and she predicts that number will keep growing. “[Couples are] looking to have fun rather than a stressful traditional-type wedding.”
Samantha and Ryan were both aware of how demanding a traditional Guyanese wedding could be. Five years ago, Samantha’s older sister had both her Hindu and Christian ceremonies in Toronto with 300 and 500 guests at each, respectively. The total cost of her wedding was around $80,000.
In comparison, Samantha and Ryan’s wedding in mid-October cost $25,000, nearly $6,000 less than the national average, according to this bridal industry survey. That number includes the couple’s travel expenses, their seven-day stay in Jamaica, off-site excursions, both Hindu and Christian ceremonies, wedding regalia, decorations and pre-marriage festivities held in Toronto.
While most brides demand they be able to inspect their wedding venues firsthand before the big day, Samantha didn’t mind waiting until landing in Jamaica to see her resort in person. She had already scoped out all the details of her wedding online from the comfort of her home: pictures and videos of the cocktail party and wedding cake, for example, were just a click away.
It was the flight that Samantha felt the most apprehensive about. She worried that some of the suitcases might go missing — the one with the decorations, maybe, or the dresses. With 65 of her guests and their baggage on board, the plane was bound to get hectic.
“That was the highest point of anxiety for me but once we got there and we got settled everything was very, very smooth,” she says.
The flight ended up being hitch-free and cost-free as well: Samantha and Ryan had scored a deal where every seventh guest’s stay at the resort was on the house, so the couple’s flight and stay were free.
Amanda Punit, who is Guyanese-Canadian, was symbolically wed to her husband of Trinidadian descent, Thabo Kathirgamanathan, on a weeklong trip to Punta Cana in August 2015. The couple held their traditional Guyanese and Sri Lankan ceremonies at home in Toronto prior to the vacation but Amanda, 29, says she also wanted to plan something “smaller and more intimate.”
The couple’s Punta Cana wedding cost around $27,000 and was held at a venue off their all-inclusive resort. Unlike Samantha, Amanda was nervous about not seeing the locale before the reception. “You don’t know what to expect, you haven’t met anyone in person, you just see pictures and you hope that it all turns out the way it looks,” she says. But thanks to a group booking discount Amanda also scored significant savings: nearly all of her 95 guests booked through the same travel agency, Red Tag, and she was able to bring the cost of each all-inclusive stay down to $1360 from around $1700.
Resorts and airlines often offer discounts like this to lure in couples and the high volume of guests they bring. Vacation countries are also seeing a boost in their economy: local vendors that cater to the wedding industry are benefiting from this increase in travel weddings. Destinations like Jamaica do well because of relaxed residency requirements, even having a page on their consulate website promoting the ease of hotel marriages.
“A lot of these countries want people to come down and get married because it’s great for tourism,” says Soloway.
Kara Mahbubani and her husband Arun opened their restaurant Mystic India six years ago in Ironshore, a suburb along the coast just east of Montego Bay. The couple caters authentic Indian cuisine to weddings on and off nearby resorts, also providing Hindu weddings with traditional props like Dandia sticks, used for Gujarati dances, and the Havan Kund, a fire pit.
According to Kara, Mystic India has seen a “significant increase in sales.”
“Destination weddings have become such a trend since the past three or four years,” she says. Her restaurant now caters two to four weddings a month, up from one wedding every three to four months in 2012.
Food and garments aside, there was one aspect of Samantha and Ryan’s wedding that didn’t stick to conventional Hindu wedding guidelines: the guest count. Of the 250 people that were invited, 72 adults and eight children celebrated with them in Montego Bay, a tiny number compared to most Hindu weddings where guest counts can surge into the hundreds.
The reason: guests must pay sizeably larger bills for destination weddings than they would a local one.
While there are no Canadian estimates, this 2015 American Express report says that guests in the U.S. spent an average of U.S. $673 (or Cdn $821 in 2015) per wedding; Samantha and Ryan’s attendees paid $1,534 (Cdn) per person for the seven-day trip.
That price can put a heavy cap on the number of guests able to afford a destination wedding, which can be problematic since some ethnic communities prefer more guests than less. On top of long travel times and big bills for guests, it's just another reason for families to advise against destination weddings.
Soloway says she’s witnessed pushback from parents who had envisioned a more traditional marriage for their kids. “We see it all the time…sometimes it’s more of a personal struggle that a mother or father can face,” she says. Samantha’s mother Rawattie Beniprashad had some reservations. “In Guyana destination weddings are very uncommon and would be considered a luxurious and different way to get married,” she says. However, the fact that Samantha’s out-of-town wedding actually cut on costs was a big plus, and Beniprashad says that for many guests it was more than a wedding, it was a family holiday.
Since marriages in Guyana are usually home affairs, Samantha honoured the Hindu maticore and mehendi traditions at her parent’s place in Toronto before flying to Jamaica. During these ceremonies, the bride is dyed and purified at home and the women dance outside to the lively beat of traditional tassa drums, an essential component of Guyanese weddings. But Samantha didn’t get to have the tassa drums, having opted for a simplified version because Toronto’s weather was “on and off”.
Beniprashad was worried that the rest of her daughter’s wedding in Montego Bay would mean more cuts to those wedding traditions. “One of the major concerns I had was that if the resort would be able to deliver on all of the Hindu customs that we wanted to include in her ceremony.”
It's a common worry, and many wedding agencies catering to ethnic communities use parents’ peace-of-mind as a selling point for their businesses. Blue Petal Destination Weddings is a Vancouver-based agency that specializes in Hindi, Sikh and Muslim destination weddings in Mexico, and their website lists 'keeping your family happy' as the first major feature of their service.
Pam Gosal, president of Blue Petal Destination Weddings, says that parents should express explicitly to planners what they expect, especially in a country where English isn’t the first language. “Communication is a very important aspect of this,” she says. “You don’t want your wires crossed.”
Soloway says that many large destination resorts have had to evolve over the last two years to become more accessible to couples of different ethnic backgrounds and their families. Some resorts keep a roster of cultural wedding-friendly vendors while others offer to help couples find local officiants like rabbis or pandits for their ceremonies, Many now have chefs onsite that can accommodate more traditional and demanding feasts. Kosher meals, for example, are now available at select resorts that previously didn’t offer them before due to the tremendous effort it takes to transform a Caribbean kitchen into a kosher one.
“It’s great because that allows for more people to attend the wedding, especially the older family members who are a bit more skeptical,” says Soloway. “It’s been happening slowly over time but now everybody’s kind of catching up … and even moving into the future we’re going to be seeing more and more of it.”
According to Samantha, their Hindu ceremony in Jamaica had all the accoutrements of an authentic Guyanese wedding. The ceremony included a pandit that the couple flew out from Toronto, fresh-water coconuts for guests and a buffet of South Asian fare, all-included. “The resort did an amazing job at helping us keep with the traditions,” she says.
As for Samantha’s mother, her worries were appeased, saying that her daughter’s wedding was “everything we imagined it to be.” Destination weddings can be a meeting of cultures — that of the newlyweds’ and of the country they’re visiting. While the destination may seem unfamiliar, the fusion of customs is something members of ethnic communities are familiar with living in a country as diverse as Canada.
“The location and simplicity of my daughter’s wedding was definitely different ... [but] the core traditions and rituals have not changed,” says Beniprashad. “To us Canadians, it’s a lot of fun.”
Tanya is a content creator and journalist reporting on diasporic culture and communities in Toronto.
by Tazeen Inam
For 21-year-old Mahnoor Baig, who grew up in Mississauga, the guest list for her wedding came as a shock. It included many people she had never met before, and numbered in the hundreds. But her parents insisted they wanted to invite people from every corner of the world to their only daughter’s celebration.
Though younger Pakistanis tend to be more modest in their approach, older generations see weddings as an once-in-a-lifetime affair, to be celebrated extravagantly. Industry insiders say that community members compete to outdo each other in a bid to wow attendees, designing events to be remembered and discussed long after the couple has returned from their honeymoon.
What followed were intense negotiations between parents and daughter. “The final list had only 5 per cent [of guests] that I had not met before,” Baig says. Her husband, Farhan Khan, a physician, is also not very fond of crowded weddings, but understood why so many were invited. “It’s a social gathering that reunites people who’ve been separated for a long time. It was a new experience for me, and in the end, I didn’t mind it as I met lot of people from both sides.”
They wound up hosting 350 guests at their reception at the Burlington Convention Centre, with some coming in from other parts of Canada, Pakistan, the U.S., and the U.K.
Compared to the average cost of a Canadian wedding — $30,717, including honeymoon — Pakistani celebrations can run between $50,000 and $200,000, according to Roxy Zapala, founder and creative director of Art of Celebrations, who has been planning weddings for 15 years.
For Baig's parents and others like them, a month-long celebration is a small investment to mark the beginning of a lifelong commitment, much like making a down payment on a house. Days are spent shopping, finalizing vendors, and dropping off invitations, while on the weekends close family and friends are invited for tea or dinner. They play the dholki — a large-skinned drum that is struck with a metal spoon — sing traditional songs extolling the bride and groom, apply henna, exchange gifts, and plan for the big day.
Shahnaz Shah, an obstetrician and gynecologist who immigrated to Canada from the U.K. in 2000, blew her son Rehan away with a grand reception held at Toronto's Casa Loma. “I knew that my mother [was] going to do something extra for me," Rehan says, "but I never expected it to be this grand.”
“We had bhangra [music], belly dancers, a dance floor, and piano playing too. It was a combination with exquisite decor, to keep my guests occupied with fun-filled activities," Shah recalls. "People are still talking about how well it was organized.”
Other than lavish food and entertainment, the bridal dress (typically red) and jewellry consume a lot of the budget. Yellow or white gold is embedded with diamonds, pearls, or precious stones, and usually customized to match the wedding outfit. Special dresses for the immediate family, outfits for the groom, and an exchange of presents between the families add to the costs.
Competition to provide these services is intense. “There were only a few shops in the Toronto area when I started business 20 years ago," says Erum Ahmed, owner of Erum’s Creations, and a dress designer who caters primarily to the Pakistani immigrant community. "Now there are more than 50 good designer outlets selling traditional, customized bridal dresses.”
Makeup and hairstyling add to the budget as well. Makeup artists such as Aneela Gardezi, who has many years of experience working with Pakistani-Canadian families, says completing a bride's look in the traditional style can cost anywhere between $1,000 and $1,500. “Pakistani makeup is famous for its heaviness," she explains, "so those who opt for total transformation of complexion and features need extra material.”
Baig went for a natural look that suited her pastel outfit. But she had to pay extra for her hijab and dupatta (veil). “Everyone is not an expert on setting bridal hijab," she says. "I called someone at the makeup studio to do the job for me, and obviously I had to pay her extra.”
All this preparation needs to be documented too. This can include drone cinematography to provide a 360-degree aerial view of the wedding, which can run between $1,500 and $4,500 per shoot, according to Zapala.
Khawaja tried it out at her choreographed Burlington Convention Centre event. “It’s like creating virtual reality for us and for those who missed parts of the wedding. The drone costs us a bit more, but it lent a new perspective and thrilled my guests.”
It's just the latest trend as a community attempts to meld tradition with modernity in a new land.
Tazeen Inam is a freelance journalist with New Canadian Media and Muslim Link based in Mississauga, Ontario.
This story is the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media.
by Lucy Slavianska
Victoria Bechkalo, a social worker from Ukraine, and Aleksandr Aksenov, a bank analyst from Russia, had only five guests at their Toronto wedding — the groom’s brother, his wife and children, and a family friend. Since their home countries were at war with each other, dividing their friends, and their parents couldn’t make it to Toronto due to visa issues, Bechkalo and Aksenov couldn’t plan a big wedding.
Still, they say their ceremony at Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral was the happiest moment of their lives, because what mattered to them was not the number of guests, a drive in a limo, or a lavish reception, but the decision to create their family in peaceful, tolerant Canada and their ability to do this by blending traditions from their respective homelands with those from their new home.
One of these traditions is affordability.
There is a long history of church weddings in eastern European communities, not just because of the opulent atmosphere — the candles, richly decorated altars, clerical vestments, murals, and iconography — but because the churches make a point of keeping costs down.
Many churches, for instance, charge more than $1,000 for wedding ceremonies (the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto charges $1,500 for a wedding, and the Anglican St. Clement Church charges $1,725), but eastern European churches tend to have much lower fees. Some, like the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church and St. Mary’s Polish Roman Catholic Church, charge between $100 and $500, but if a couple cannot afford to pay, even those charges may be waived. Others don’t charge for weddings at all, though couples often make a donation.
Elena and Joseph Peccoreli chose to marry in the same Russian Orthodox cathedral as Bechkalo and Aksenov. Before the ceremony, Elena bought a small icon and her wedding ring from the cathedral’s shop. “These things are cheap [there] and everybody can afford them,” she says. “I chose a white gold ring that was brought to Canada from a Russian monastery. But in general, the crosses and the rings don’t have to be golden. The idea is that nobody should be stopped from getting married because of money.”
Aliaksei Androsik, originally from Russia, and Julia Gorbunova, from Belarus, had been wanting to get married for more than a decade. “We met when I was 13 and she was 14 years old,” Androsik says. “At that time we were both attending school in Poland, and she told me to wait till we grew up. We lived in different countries for years, keeping in touch over the internet, and we finally decided that she [would] come to me to Canada.” They married in a small Belorussian church in Toronto, with 40 guests in attendance. After the ceremony, there was a party in the church hall with cake and vodka, and then the couple hosted a barbecue at home.
This is very much in keeping with cultural beliefs shared throughout eastern Europe. Salaries are significantly lower there than in western countries, so frugality is generally valued. Eastern European priests here presume that young couples, and especially new immigrants, might not have much by way of savings. There is also a widespread belief that couples should use their money for more practical purposes, such as buying a home or providing for future children. Priests emphasize that saving is righteous, and they discourage couples from going into debt over a day of celebrations.
Archpriest Vasily Kolega, from Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral (which doesn't charge for weddings), considers the overspending that's so common unwise: “In Canada, we see a lot of couples who use up their savings or borrow money and spend a lot on big weddings, and then spend years paying [it] back.”
By contrast, he says, couples like Bechkalo and Aksenov (whom he married in the summer of 2016) have a different perspective when it comes to celebrating their wedding. “Such couples who come to us believe that the wedding ceremony is much more significant than a big wedding party or than going to Mexico or somewhere else to spend money. They start their family life. They declare their love for each other, take their vows very seriously, and believe this more important than the material sides of the weddings.”
Lucy Slavianska is a Toronto-based journalist and editor who has lived and worked in Canada, Japan, Bulgaria, Venezuela, and the Netherlands.
This story is the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media.
by Renée Sylvestre-Williams
When Toronto-based lawyer Anjli Patel and her husband, Parambir Keila, were planning their Sikh wedding ceremony, they wanted to keep it simple and have it downtown. But they didn't look specifically for a South Asian planner familiar with their cultures.
“We found our wedding planner through a listing on Wedluxe.com,” says Patel. It wasn't necessarily the norm for Patel to have a planner. She says traditionally South Asian weddings were organized by families and, in some cases, the entire village. But since her 2012 wedding, she says having a planner instead of relying on family has become more accepted in South Asian communities.
“There are South Asian wedding planners, like Sapna [Weddings], but we went with our planner [Melissa Haggerty from Spectacular Spectacular], even though ours was their first South Asian wedding, because we wanted to get married in a downtown venue, and our planner had a lot of experience planning events in downtown venues.” Spectacular Spectacular has planned a few South Asian weddings each year since.
That choice, and that distribution of knowledge, wasn’t available 10 or 15 years ago, when Vicki Singh was planning her wedding. She was inspired to start her own wedding planning business after trying to find suppliers who could cater to the South Asian market.
As more immigrants settle in Canada, they’re looking for planners who can help plan weddings that incorporate all aspects of their cultures. With the Canadian wedding industry worth $5 billion and catering to an average of 160,000 couples annually (according to a survey in Weddingbells magazine), the industry has evolved beyond the white dress. And while it's easy for many people to find a planner who understands their wishes in their countries of origin, it can be difficult to find planners in Canada who fully appreciate clients’ varied needs and cultural sensitivities.
“This year will be our 15th anniversary [of the business],” says Singh, who has published two books on the subject, Cultural Weddings and The South Asian Wedding Planner. “This issue kept coming up. Finding suppliers who wanted and could cater to Indian weddings was a challenge. Instagram wasn’t as prevalent, so there were fewer ways to find out about new services and ideas. We were counting a lot on word of mouth to find people to do video, makeup — and the referrals weren’t always of the best quality.”
“We helped plan a Sikh wedding last year where the photographer had never done this kind of wedding before,” Singh explains, describing one typical example. “She was adamant she knew what to do, but there are certain things you need to know beforehand that she never got to: in a Sikh wedding you remove your shoes, cover your head, et cetera, during the ceremony. She came to the venue not knowing any of that.”
Alison McGill, editor-in-chief of Weddingbells, says couples who've wanted a diverse wedding have been chronically underserved by the industry, but that is changing. “Diversity has always been a key factor in Canadian weddings, and with more and more couples wanting to incorporate their cultures into their celebration, there has definitely been a shift in the wedding marketplace … Offerings are more multicultural today than ever before, and it is now not as difficult to find a wedding planner specializing in specific cultural celebrations.” She also said that wedding shows — often the place where couples find vendors and suppliers — are becoming more varied, offering services specific to different cultural backgrounds.
Danielle Andrews, co-founder of the Wedding Planners Institute of Canada, has seen firsthand how the industry has changed. “I don’t know that multicultural weddings themselves have necessarily increased,” she says. “What I’m seeing is more wedding coordinators getting involved. We’re seeing a shift towards having a wedding coordinator handling the [culturally specific] details — and not necessarily always a wedding coordinator of the couple’s culture.”
What has changed, in other words, is that wedding coordinators are educating themselves about different cultures. They might have training in (and until recently, cultural familiarity with) western wedding mores, but now they’re expanding their expertise and range of services.
Andrews says they’re seeing more weddings that blend eastern and western traditions — “more western-style weddings with the Chinese tea ceremony included," for instance. "It’s not heavy on customs, but it’s definitely incorporating customs.” Couples are picking and choosing which customs they want incorporated into their wedding.
Patel and Keila chose not to include extravagant Sikh or Hindu traditions into their wedding, which often include a week of events leading up to the ceremony. Instead, she and her husband kept the wedding small, celebrating at the Art Gallery of Ontario with 150 people, and even skipping the cake. She says working with Haggerty might have sounded risky, but it worked out: “We had a South Asian officiant and we all met a number of times to review the ceremony in detail. We had many design meetings where we discussed the big-picture look and feel and details as well. Having said that, our vision was never beyond her comprehension because we have the same aesthetic sensibility. We were always on the same page.”
Singh, the one who started her own wedding planning business, may have had trouble finding suppliers who could help plan weddings, but now, people can get her books everywhere. “We have brides who get our books at the Bay or Bed Bath and Beyond. And [then they] will have their nieces use it — a progression of people.”
Renee Sylvestre-Williams is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Canadian Living and Quartz.
This story is the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit