By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Exuma’s business and local government executives were urged by Ministry of Tourism officials “to work together” and ensure the ill-fated Fyre Festival’s success just one month before its collapse, Tribune Business was told yesterday.
Pedro Rolle, the Exuma Chamber of Commerce’s president, revealed that all the island’s stakeholders were summoned to a meeting that was chaired by Ministry of Tourism representatives, and attended by Fyre Festival’s main principal, William McFarland.
He added that the Ministry’s officials requested the community’s assistance “to make this happen”, despite the numerous concerns already being voiced by private sector vendors and the international media as to whether the organisers had the wherewithal to pull-off the promised music extravaganza.
“The very first time we met these persons, we met them with a group of representatives from the Ministry of Tourism from Nassau,” Mr Rolle told this newspaper of his first encounter with the Fyre Festival promoters. “A little over a month before the event, some representatives from Tourism came in. McFarland was there.
“Tourism gave the assurance, or requested the assistance of the community, to say we ought to work together to make this happen. They invited all the local government departments in Exuma to come together in the meeting, and brought in all the stakeholders, including the Chamber. They [Tourism] chaired that meeting. That’s why I think sufficient due diligence was not done.”
Given the concerns and doubts already being expressed over Fyre Festival, Mr Rolle questioned what had given the Ministry of Tourism the necessary “comfort level” to call for Exuma’s private sector and workers to support the event.
“They must have had a level of comfort to say: ‘Let’s work with this; let’s make it happen. If they did have that level of comfort, what gave it to them?” the Exuma Chamber president told Tribune Business.
Mr Rolle’s comments add to the growing evidence that the Ministry of Tourism, and some of its officials, know far more - and are more deeply involved - with the Fyre Festival debacle than they care to admit.
The Ministry’s role in chairing and organising the meeting disclosed by Mr Rolle also raises questions over whether its involvement boosted Fyre Festival’s credibility, and may have unwittingly induced Exuma businesses and vendors to keep providing their services despite the difficulty in obtaining due payment.
Several Exuma-based vendors revealed to Tribune Business yesterday how they are owed more than $130,000 by the Fyre Festival organisers, sums that are significant both to the island’s economy and the survival of small and medium-sized (SME) businesses.
Mr Rolle, speaking after a Chamber meeting where the agenda was largely consumer by the Fyre Festival fiasco, called for an investigation into the fate of equipment and materials left behind on Exuma by the Fyre Festival organisers.
Demanding that “proper protocols and procedures” be put in place, Mr Rolle suggested that this equipment - if properly safeguarded - could be sold-off and the proceeds used to compensate Bahamian businesses and the Customs Department once all relevant laws were complied with.
“What we’re asking for is can someone follow up on all the things that came into Exuma,” he told Tribune Business. “How’s it being disposed of? Are things being sold? Who did the investigation? What are the protocols being put in place to ensure things are being done in a proper manner, so that monies can be paid to those owed?”
The Exuma Chamber president said he feared the Fyre Festival debacle will be “swept under the rug”, with no one held accountable for the fall-out which has damaged the Bahamas’ reputation and tourism brand, as well as the financial standing of many local businesses and labourers.
“We’d like to know how this happened,” Mr Rolle said. “If it’s allowed to go and be swept under the rug, how do we ensure it doesn’t happen again? Who’s to be held responsible for the due diligence?
“What government agencies, departments and ministries should be held accountable now, to say: ‘You guys didn’t do your job’. We need to understand the whole vetting and compliance process.
“When the organisers came, and we heard they wanted to do this, whose responsible for ultimately giving them the permits? There must have been a relationship [with the Ministry of Tourism]. We know they were far more involved that when they say they had nothing to do with it.”
Mr Rolle was unable to recall the names of the Ministry of Tourism officials who organised and chaired the Exuma meeting, but its timing coincides with when it started putting out glowing press releases concerning the Fyre Festival.
The Ministry described itself as “a partner” of the event, and said it was working with all relevant local government agencies on Exuma to obtain the necessary permits and approvals that McFarland and his partner, hip hop artist, Ja Rule, needed.
In the wake of Fyre Festival’s collapse, which has triggered multi-million dollar lawsuits from aggrieved attendees and an FBI probe into the organisers, the Ministry of Tourism has sought to put as much distance between itself and the fiasco as possible - repeatedly insisting it was a private event in which it had no involvement.
Yet Tribune Business reported on Monday how the Fyre Festival’s catering was provided by a newly-formed company, Cater Fyre, with the culinary team put together by the Ministry of Tourism’s culinary tourism manager, DeAnne Gibson, and two University of the Bahamas professors - one of whom was her sister.
Attempts to reach Mrs Gibson and the two University professors again proved fruitless yesterday, but their involvement raises questions as to whether Fyre Festival was seen as a potential source of rich profits by some. And, in turn, whether this clouded the Ministry of Tourism’s judgment, together with the perceived wealth and ‘celebrity’ status of the organisers.
Mr Rolle, meanwhile, revealed that he and other Chamber members were sufficiently concerned about Fyre Festival’s issues to invite McFarland and his organising team to update them on the event’s progress three weeks prior to its staging.
McFarland himself, and other Fyre Festival official, attended but did little to ease the Exuma private sector’s concerns, the Chamber president added.
“When the Fyre people came to Exuma, we called them to a Chamber meeting, and they said everything was fine,” Mr Rolle told Tribune Business. “We called them to come by and share with us what they were doing, and gave them five minutes to give an update.
“They said everything was fine, but the update they gave was very vague. We indicated that based on the timeline, we didn’t see how it would come to be. The living accommodations, the water, the food supplies; we didn’t see how this thing would be on the island between our meeting and when the festival would take place.
“We were very, very concerned then that this thing would be a non-event,” he continued. “Nothing was announced with any degree of specificity. They were saying they knew what they were doing, and that this would happen. Nothing definitive was given, such as saying: ‘This will be in place next week, and you’re welcome to come and see it’.”
The Exuma Chamber president said he also made McFarland aware that Fyre Festival would clash with the Georgetown Regatta, a time when the island’s resources were already stretched thin.