The Real Victims of Fyre Festival: How Not to Travel
(This post contains information that may be considered “spoilers” for those wanting to watch the Netflix documentary.)
If you watch one thing this week, let it be the eagerly-awaited Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (note: I genuinely had this marked on my calendar because fundamentally I’m the kind of person who likes to snuggle up with a cup of cocoa and watch dreams die.) Like many, I tuned in to find out exactly how this infamous festival ever came to pass and to get a glimpse of the beautiful Bahamian location that featured as the backdrop.
However, the story of Fyre goes much deeper than the poorly made cheese sandwiches and Instagram tyranny you might have caught in the general media. I remember the coverage well; the public revelling scorned rich kids while hurricane tents filled with rainwater and broken dreams. But, that really was not the tragedy of Fyre Festival. What really hurt to see is not the manipulation and fraud of thousands of privileged Westerners, but the sheer ethical violation imposed on the residents of Great Exuma, the Bahamian island which the event (kind of) took place. While many of us laughed and joked about the clusterfudge of Instagram indulgence that, I know I personally did not stop to consider the Islanders in the ramifications of this mess.
For those who aren’t aware Fyre started off as being planned on a deserted island; formerly Norman’s Caye (AKA Pablo Escobar’s infamous Bahamian stop-gap which was used in transporting cocaine from Colombia to the USA in the 80s/90s.)
As someone who has spent a lot of time in Colombia, I’m already of the opinion that using Escobar to draw in tourism is pretty dang shady. Here’s a man; a monster, who killed thousands of people and plunged an otherwise peaceful nation into war and instability, that even 20+ years later it is still recovering from. Of course, the notoriety of such a high profile criminal, especially one that stands as a symbol for everyone’s favourite weekend indiscretion, is understandable – but it’s like using blood diamond traders to sell glamping holidays in Sierra Leone. Not cool, right? But that’s another story.
None the less, they used the Escobar name and notorious past of this island to draw in interest. Add a supermodel-heavy promo vid that painted the filtered picture that consumers wanted to believe. Plus some of those adorable little swimming pigs, some luxury yachts and a whole bunch of millennials, and you’ve got a surefire (surefyre?) recipe for a good ol’ capitalism cocktail at its finest. What could go wrong?
This may shock you to hear, but it’s actually highly impractical to put on a festival for 6000 people with extremely high expectations on a small uninhabited island with zero facilities, miles off the US mainland. Who knew? But it was none of these issues that caused the festival to be moved to Great Exuma, an alternative Bahamian island. The owner of Norman’s Caye forbade them of using the Escobar name to advertise the island, understandably. I mean, the islands name itself is well known – it’s not like people would be in any way unaware of the history of the location, advertising or not. But they went right ahead and did it anyway, subsequently losing their location and pathing the way for the epic mess that was about to ensure: cue gasps!
A plus side of having to move the festival was they could choose an inhabited island, such as Great Exuma, was that suddenly a large workforce was available to them with around 7000 residents. Locals were understandably happy to be involved with a new project that promised hundreds of new jobs and an improved economy for years to come. Great! But unfortunately, that isn’t what happened. What actually happened is these people were hired to work for months to get the site ready for the festival, and all on the good faith that they would be paid at the end.
For those of you who have been living under a rock: it did not go well. Fast-forward to 2019, while many Fyre attendees have been reimbursed, and multi-million dollar lawsuits settled even, many Islanders remain unpaid. This feels like the epitome of unethical travel: the destruction of natural beauty, manipulation of a workforce, complete and total disregard for what would happen to the island once the festival was over. Billy McFarland and co fled the island secretly, although supposedly remain in contact with some of the workforce, but payment has never come because there’s no money. Not for the people without power or influence, anyway. This feels like the inevitable outcome of a world so transfixed by a manufactured sparkly finish that it can’t see beyond its rose-tinted glasses.
Thankfully, a few nuggets of hope that come from the Netflix documentary. Firstly, that viewers have felt the plight of the locals and come to their aid setting up a Go Fund Me page to repay one of the ladies most severely affected – a hotel and restaurant owner named MaryAnne Rolle, who was left with her life savings drained and credit ruined. The Go Fund Me page is doing so well it looks likely they will be able to pay off the entire workforce, hopefully with a little extra left over as a mild form of compensation and prove that not all us millennials are the absolute worst (yay).
If you’d like to contribute, you can make a donation here.
And the other – that the Bahamian government have confirmed that tourism has actually been up since the event, so it has hopefully not forced any lasting damage to this paradisical island that is known originally for its excellent dive sites and white sand coves.
And so I ask you this: is this ethical? Is it okay for wealthy Western businesses to swoop into developing nations and harvest their natural beauty and cheap workforce for their own benefit? The danger is, the chance of bringing a severe economic boom is often too good an offer to pass up. If one positive comes from the Fyre Festival shambles, let it be that we as travellers consider our options more carefully before buying into potentially damaging events that primarily serve to line the pockets of the fat cats and not in the interests of supporting local communities and preserving the land. I know I personally will be questioning events I attend and I hope you will too.
In a world as fragile as this, you have to ask yourself, can we really afford not to?