Former Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe yesterday distanced himself from the disastrous 2017 Fyre Festival that was set for Exuma, insisting that his ministry did not drop the ball.
The festival was thrust back into the spotlight after competing documentaries by Hulu and Netflix were recently released, bringing renewed attention to a scheme that defrauded investors of huge sums of money and left hundreds of festival attendees stranded after the event’s abrupt cancelation.
Wilchcombe, who served as minister during the debacle, said when the ministry met with investors for the first time the event was already set in motion.
“They did not need the Ministry of Tourism’s approval because that had already been received from the local government officials,” he explained.
“What they needed was the normal assistance that we provide with customs and immigration and that kind of stuff, nothing to do with anything else.
“In fact, the organizers said they needed nothing from The Bahamas. They want to bring visitors to the country. They were going to think about chartering Bahamasair and all that kind of stuff; that’s what we were briefed on.
“And then they were assigned to a team to work with them, and that’s where it was left.”
Hundreds of tourists expecting to participate in a “once-in-a-lifetime musical experience on the islands of the Exumas” were shocked to find that nothing was in place for a concert of the scale that was advertised.
Festival packages were priced up to $250,000. Transportation, luxury villas, the complete concert experience and food were expected to be included in the packages.
Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” and Netflix’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” provided viewers with a behind-the-scenes look at the lead-up to the event’s chaotic downfall.
Last year, Fyre Festival co-founder Billy McFarland was found guilty in a Manhattan court of defrauding investors of the festival and sentenced to six years in federal prison.
Wilchcombe said his team worked with festival organizers on a regular basis, but was not directly involved, as it was a private function being held by a private group.
Asked whether he believes his ministry did its due diligence before the planned event, he said, “Had this worked, you would not have been asking me this question.
“… Unfortunately, it was, in my view, a very bad situation that developed into something that nobody wanted to happen. But again, our people were working diligently with them, and as far as they were concerned, things were going as best as it could go.
“There were people working on the ground in Exuma as well, the local government people there, the local people there, the administrators and others who were working there.
“Their view, they thought everything was going well, they thought things were going to work out smoothly, but again circumstances happen.”
He continued, “I wouldn’t say my ministry dropped the ball at all. Whatever the ministry was allowed to do, they did their jobs, and they did their jobs very effectively, and if you wish to confirm that, you should speak to them or speak to the individuals who worked in the team there.”
A month ahead of the date set for the festival, then Minister Wilchcombe declared it would significantly boost Exuma’s economy.
“We are very excited that the Exumas have been selected as the home of Fyre Festival,” he said.
“This music festival will bring to The Bahamas one of the largest events ever hosted in our destination, and we are delighted to welcome all attendees to our island.
“We’re working closely with the Fyre Festival team to ensure that visitors have an unforgettable trip to the Exumas. We’re looking forward to sharing the beauty of our island with guests of Fyre Festival, just eight weeks away.”
However, when those festival goers found themselves stranded and confused, the ministry quickly said that, while it assisted with advertising, it did not organize the festival.
“The organizers of Fyre recently asked the Ministry of Tourism for support for their private event,” the statement read.
“The Ministry of Tourism is not an official sponsor of Fyre Festival.
“Given the magnitude of this undertaking, the MOT lent its support, as we do with all international events.
“We offered advice and assisted with communications with other government agencies.
“The event organizers 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.”
Asked yesterday whether he believes there were things they ought to have done differently, Wilchcombe said, “Hindsight is always 20/20. You always look at things you can learn lessons from, for not only me but every minister who will come subsequently.
“But again you have to understand that there are two components here: There’s a domestic component, which is Exuma, and there’s the ministry.
“The local government representatives there, they thought this could be a success. They wanted it to happen. They were pushing for it to happen.
“… It’s hard to say [what we could have done differently]. I think our team met with them, spoke with them, and they were being briefed on a regular basis, but being told that everything was fine, everything was moving… I think our people did the best they could up to that point.
“In fact, you know, no one knew the thing had blown out of control until the last couple hours before this was scheduled to happen. We were not intimately involved; we were assisting as best we could.”
Education: Vrije Universiteit Brussel (University of Brussels), MA in Mass Communications