By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A senior tourism executive yesterday pledged to intervene in the deepening stand-off over fees being charged to visit Exuma’s famed swimming pigs, adding: “We’ve got to fix that.”
Janet Johnson, the Tourism Development Corporation’s chief executive, told Tribune Business that the growing objections of some tour/excursion providers to paying the fee levied by the pigs’ owners needed to be addressed ahead of Crystal Cruises making Exuma a “port of call” on its seven-night voyages around The Bahamas.
With trips to the pigs’ island hang-out on Big Major Cay likely to be a leading attraction, especially since the trip from George Town will pass iguanas, sharks and celebrities’ private islands, Ms Johnson said it was critical that any issues which could disrupt the guest experience be resolved.
“We’ve got to fix that. I’ve been told that the ones from George Town are the culprits,” Ms Johnson said of the tour/excursion providers refusing to pay. “I haven’t had a chance as yet to address it. I was just told last week they were really objecting.
“It isn’t fair at all, so we will be stepping in to address that for sure.” The controversy was sparked earlier this year when the eight pig owners formed a company, The Original Swimming Pigs Ltd, and informed tour/excursion operators they would start charging their customers for visiting Big Major Cay - $10 for adults and $5 for children - from January 1.
Monies raised were to finance the pigs’ welfare, including supplies of food and water, as well as regular vet visits and any associated medical care. The move was backed by Ms Johnson, who earlier told this newspaper: “There’s an association, and they have been talking about starting to charge for the pigs’ welfare. That’s what it basically is all about.
“The money is going to the welfare of the pigs and for wardens to bring some order to the tour. The Tourism Development Corporation is fully supportive. It’s long overdue, and the tour operators need to show good faith and pay their way.”
Tribune Business understands that Nassau-based tour and excursion providers, and their clients, have been paying the fees along with some of their counterparts in Exuma. Yet a significant number of operators on the latter island are still baulking at the levy.
They have voiced concerns to this newspaper over whether the pig owners have any legal standing to levy the fees, challenging whether they have any valid ownership or leasehold interest in Big Major Cay. And these operators have also challenged whether The Original Swimming Pigs Ltd has the necessary Business Licence to permit the charging and collection.
They have also pointed out that beach access to the high water mark is legal throughout The Bahamas, and questioned whether fees can be levied on passengers who stay on the boat or just swim with the pigs without setting foot on land.
Ray Lightbourn, Exuma Water Sports’ principal, told Tribune Business: “None of us are going to pay. It’s a money grabbing thing. They want to even charge us for going in the water. Almost three years ago she [Bernadette Chamberlain, president of The Original Swimming Pigs Ltd] saw all those people going to the pigs and thought she could make money off that.
He challenged whether the Gray estate, from which the pigs’ owners claim their interest in the land, actually owned or leased the land on Big Major Cay, asserting that his inquiries with the Department of Lands and Surveys had revealed it was owned by a James McKinney. And Mr Lightbourn also alleged that the Business Licence referred to a venture “for phone orders only” that was selling pork.
Ms Chamberlain, who runs Chamberlain’s Cottage Rentals on Exuma’s Staniel Cay, refuted both these allegations. She told this newspaper that The Original Swimming Pigs Ltd’s business licence had been published online for all to see, while also dismissing Mr Lightbourn’s land ownership claims.
However, the latter insisted: “Our thing is we’re not going to pay her. We started the pigs’ tours, not her. We made them famous. She says someone has to take care of the pigs and somebody has to pay for it. The pigs have been fine for 25 years, and we’ve never asked here to take care of them.”
However, Ms Chamberlain retorted that one vet visit costs $2,300 alone. She added: “They want to make money off of other people’s pigs and don’t want to pay to take care of them. It’s a lot that goes into taking care of those pigs and they don’t get it. They don’t know how to take care of the pigs. There’s a lot that goes into feeding them.”