By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
and NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Minister of Tourism has expressed optimism that “the Bahamas’ brand will withstand any negative fallout” from the Fyre Festival debacle, amid increasing questions over how much his ministry knew before disaster struck.
Obie Wilchcombe told Tribune Business on Friday that the outcome of the event, organised by hip hop artist, Ja Rule, and his technology entrepreneur buddy, William McFarland, had been “unfortunate”.
“We must appreciate that throughout the world these things happen from time to time,” Mr Wilchcombe said, after the Exuma-based Fyre Festival disintegrated into chaos and confusion late last week.
Festival-goers, some of whom had paid $12,000 per head, found that none of the promised infrastructure, accommodations and attractions were in place, while many of the advertised bands had pulled out.
Amid the anger and frustration, and potential ‘reputational damage by association’ for the Bahamas and Exuma, Mr Wilchcombe added: “There will be some outrage and negative feedback, and the organiser will lose some credibility, but hopefully be able to fight it off and work to get it back to where they regain their credibility.
“The intent was perfect, and they wanted to do something that was spectacular, but went afoul trying to get the facilities ready in time. Unfortunately they ran into difficulties, but I believe that the brand, the Bahamas’ brand, will withstand any negative fallout.”
The Ministry of Tourism, in a statement issued after Fyre Festival unravelled, sought to distance itself from the chaos, emphasising that it was not a sponsor of the event and therefore had no financial involvement.
“The organisers of Fyre recently asked the Ministry of Tourism for support for their private event,” the Ministry said.
“Given the magnitude of this undertaking, the Ministry of Tourism lent its support as we do with all international events. We offered advice and assisted with communications with other government agencies.”
The Ministry’s statement indicated that it relied on the assurances of Fyre Festival’s organisers that all was well, raising questions as to whether it did sufficient due diligence on their capabilities and progress on putting on all the on-site infrastructure.
“The event organisers assured us that all measures were taken to ensure a safe and successful event, but clearly they did not have the capacity to execute an event of this scale,” the Ministry said.
Its latest statement stands in contrast to the glowing press release issued by the Ministry of Tourism about Fyre Festival some four weeks before its planned April 28-30 launch, at a time when the event’s problems were becoming widely known.
Tribune Business, checking its records, found the April 3, 2017, press release from the Ministry of Tourism in which it described itself “as a partner for the festival”, liaising with all government and Exuma-based authorities to ensure the organisers obtained the necessary permits and approvals.
The April 3 statement said the Ministry of Tourism was “working tirelessly with Fyre Festival organisers to ensure that the 2017 festival is unforgettable” - and unforgettable it certainly has been, but for all the wrong reasons.
“The island of Exuma will come to life with an explosive and pulsating festival in late April that is set to give the island a significant economic boost,” the Ministry’s April 3 release stated.
“The Fyre Festival, described as a departure from the familiar, will deliver a one-of-a-kind immersive experience in music, culture, art, culinary delights and luxury for an unprecedented event over the two weekends.
“The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism is working tirelessly with Fyre Festival organizers to ensure that the 2017 festival is unforgettable for the over 5,000 guests expected to descend on the island between April 28-30, and again on May 5-7.”
The April 3 release goes on to quote Carla Stuart, the Ministry’s senior director of national planning and special events, and adds: “The Ministry of Tourism is a partner for the festival, and serves as a liaison between the organisers and various government and local entities on the island.”
Ms Stuart was then quoted as saying: “Our goal is to work with the organisers to ensure that the festival meets all of the local standards in safety, security, environmental, etc.
“We will also ensure that all local approvals required to coordinate a successful event of this magnitude are secured.”
While the timing of the April 3 release indicates that the Ministry of Tourism was called upon at the last moment by Fyre Festival’s organisers, its contents raise questions as to how deeply the Ministry became involved, and how much it knew about the impending disaster.
Apart from whether the Ministry of Tourism carried out proper due diligence on the organisers, it also calls into question whether it should have spotted the warning signs - and raised the alarm earlier - about the event’s spiral into chaos.
Mr Wilchcombe, who was said to be attending a funeral in Man O’War Cay yesterday, could not be reached for further comment, having initially spoken to Tribune Business on Friday afternoon.
But Bahamian private sector executives, speaking on condition of anonymity to Tribune Business over the weekend, questioned how Fyre Festival had been allowed to proceed seemingly unchallenged despite many being aware of its mounting problems between one to two months ago.
In particular, the private sector executives queried how Fyre Festival had been able to obtain the necessary permits and approvals from central and local government, despite evidence of increasing disorganisation.
This newspaper was informed that Fyre Festival organisers approached Bahamas-based suppliers and providers of necessary infrastructure for the concert site some six-eight weeks ago, but never made the necessary payments or deposits.
Resignations of key support personnel, such as Fyre Festival’s caterers, were also widely known several weeks out. What is currently not known is the potential financial loss suffered by Bahamian workers and service providers, such as the 10 jitney drivers induced to take their vehicles from Nassau to Exuma, in the belief they would be providing transportation services for Fyre Festival.
Mr Wilchcombe on Friday told Tribune Business that the festival had nonetheless been a “very courageous and exciting plan” even though the much-hyped luxury music event, with tickets costing up to $12,000, has been branded a “disaster”.
“It is an unfortunate development but it does represent a very courageous and exciting plan the organisers had put together,” the Minister said.
“The plan remains a good one and I think it could be saved. They will obviously have to think about how they move in the future and stage a major event like that anywhere in the world, which requires moving so many people.”
In a statement on its website on Thursday night, the Fyre Festival organisers said: “Due to circumstances out of our control, the physical infrastructure was not in place on time and we are unable to fulfill on that vision safely and enjoyably for our guests. At this time, we are working tirelessly to get flights scheduled and get everyone off of Great Exuma and home safely as quickly as we can.
“We ask that guests currently on-island do not make their own arrangements to get to the airport as we are co-ordinating those plans. We are working to place everyone on complimentary charters back to Miami today. This process has commenced and the safety and comfort of our guests is our top priority. The festival is being postponed until we can further assess if and when we are able to create the high-quality experience we envisioned.”