By LARRY SMITH
SOME may recall a parody celebration called Festivus from the 1990s American sitcom, Seinfeld. It included a feast, feats of strength, and the labelling of ordinary events as miracles.
Festivus was entirely made up by the father of one of the show’s scriptwriters.
Although not a perfect analogy, Festivus reminds me of the Fyre Festival. This cleverly concocted event was set for Exuma at the end of April. But it crashed spectacularly - stranding hundreds and spawning a public relations nightmare for the Bahamas.
The wave of bad publicity included stories by major British, American and Canadian newspapers, magazines and broadcasters. Headlines included such gems as ‘Rich Kids of Instagram Meet Hunger Games’, ‘Festival Crumbles in Bahamas’, and ‘Reports of Chaos in Bahamas’.
Hundreds of visitors (no-one seems to know the exact number) descended on the island of Great Exuma for what was billed as “a transformative experience over two successive weekends on a remote private island once owned by (Colombian drug lord) Pablo Escobar featuring the best in food, art, music and adventure.”
But as one account put it, “the cultural event of the decade” became “a disaster of criminal negligence” involving absurd privilege, unscrupulous business and exploitation.
In fact, an American celebrity attorney named Mark Geragos has already filed a $100m lawsuit in California on behalf of attendees, who supposedly paid ticket prices ranging from $600 to many thousands for luxury group packages to the event. In the past, Geragos has represented people like Michael Jackson.
According to a report in Variety magazine, the suit alleges that festival attendees became virtual prisoners: “Faced with the complete lack of even the most basic amenities, as well as no assistance from Defendants, festival attendees began to panic ... attempting to leave the island en masse, but found themselves trapped.”
It would be comical if it were not so serious.
The event was conceived by American rapper Jeffrey Atkins (whose stage name is Ja Rule) and a young American entrepreneur named Billy McFarland. They formed an alliance called Fyre Media in 2015 and, after a visit to Exuma, began working on a destination music festival.
Last November, they announced the Fyre Festival with a massive social media marketing campaign featuring “influencers” with large Instagram or Facebook followings. Packages included accommodation in a luxury villa, access to the festival featuring headliners like Blink-182 and Disclosure, luxury meals, open bar and transportation to and from Miami.
But by mid-April, according to a timeline published by the California-based online music magazine, edmsauce.com, Fyre had disabled comments on its social media posts and was not responding to questions from ticket holders. Then, the headliners announced they were pulling out (due to non-payment as it later turned out).
And on April 27 angry social media posts like this began slamming the event: “A complete disaster. Mass chaos. No organisation. No one knows where to go. There are no villas, just a disaster tent city.”
The original idea was to hold the event on a private island. Norman’s Cay apparently - hence the erroneous reference to Escobar in the marketing. Norman’s Cay was once owned by another Colombian drug lord named Carlos Lehder, who now languishes in a US prison.
But how could anyone who lives in the Bahamas expect to host thousands of upscale visitors at such a small and remote venue with little infrastructure?
On top of that, the festival coincided with the national regatta. And how could anyone familiar with Exuma and its limited facilities and population not see this as a problem?
The Ministry of Tourism (and Minister Obie Wilchcombe in particular) bears heavy responsibility for the failure of the festival and the ensuing public relations debacle.
On April 3 (only a couple of weeks before the event was scheduled), the Ministry said it was a “partner” for the festival and was “working tirelessly” with the organisers to ensure a successful experience - predicting a significant economic boost for Exuma from up to 5,000 attendees.
The Ministry of Tourism “serves as a liaison between the organisers and various government and local entities,” it said in a press release, adding that its role was “to ensure that safety, security and environmental standards were met”.
A statement from Mr Wilchcombe “fully endorsed” the festival and said local authorities were working hard to prepare for the kick off on April 28. “No efforts have been spared to ensure a wonderful experience for each of the thousands of guests coming,” Wilchcombe said.
But pretty quickly, Wilchcombe and his ministry tried to distance themselves from the event. This was so inexplicable, because it’s not like they have never done this before. And it’s not like the national regatta (a major conflict on a small island) had never taken place before.
In fact, this is exactly the kind of thing that the Ministry of Tourism has been doing for the past 50 years (I know - I used to work at the Bahamas News Bureau). And now we are hearing that local payments were never made and taxes and fees never collected. So Wilchcombe has everything to answer for.
FNM spokesman Sidney Collie demanded an apology from Wilchcombe. “Coming so soon after the Caribbean Musik Festival disaster, which saw his ministry spend half a million dollars on another event that also descended into chaos, (this) is a damning indictment on Wilchcombe and his tenure,” he said.
There has been no accountability from Wilchcombe on the facts surrounding either of the failed events - just a lot of smooth talk. An apology means nothing. He should take responsibility by handing in his resignation.
Tourism Director-General Joy Jibrilu said recently that her Ministry was unaware of all the details because it was a private event, but they were seeking to obtain a list of vendors with outstanding balances so they could be paid.
Organisers were said to have imported many items and used the services of numerous local vendors in an effort to ready the island for the luxury concert.
Jibrilu told The Tribune: “The Ministry of Tourism jealousy guards our brand image. As a result, we have been following every story, lead, as well as interviewing festival attendees in order to get as many viewpoints as possible.
“Once we became aware of event shortcomings, we did intervene to mitigate as much as possible any fallout, and in particular to try and secure the welfare of visitors that came in for the event,” she claimed.
But Chris Southgate, a retired private banker who served on the board of the Bahamas International Film Festival from 2003 to 2009, told me he was “dumbfounded” by the spectacular crash and burn of the Fyre Festival.
“Pulling off an event of this magnitude is a huge task,” he said. “BIFF, a non-profit, had two main sponsors in the early years, the Ministry of Tourism and Atlantis. The ministry was very supportive but also very demanding. They required accountability and performance from BIFF, which has since become an international success.”
At the time, the Fyre Festival organisers said the problems were “due to circumstances out of our control” but they were working to get everyone off the island as quickly as possible. Later they said the festival would be rescheduled for next year at a US location.
The plain fact is that very little can happen here without significant government involvement and intrusion. And it is impossible not to know “how everything went left”, as Ja Rule whined, when you are the one in charge.
They didn’t pay. They didn’t prepare. They marketed lies. That’s how. And the Ministry of Tourism allowed it to happen. Either it was a scam or they are the stupidest people ever. Take your pick.
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