Fyre Festival: what it's really like on the islands that hosted its failure

Noelle Nicolls
Stocking Island: the Exumas in the flesh - Per Breiehagen

For the uninitiated, it will be difficult to distinguish between what is true and false about the Exumas after watching the grippingly comical Fyre Festival documentaries recently released by Netflix and Hulu. But the paradox of the Fyre catastrophe is that its promotional material actually has some of the most accurate and compelling imagery of the real Exumas, the holiday destination in the Out Islands of the Bahamas.

If your only reference point is miserable cheese sandwiches, FEMA disaster relief tents and maddened millennials trying to escape Great Exuma in a panic, then your picture of Exuma, a worthy paradise destination, is no doubt tainted.

There is a simple formula to distinguish between the fake fantasy of Fyre - which, if you were unaware, was the exclusive, supermodel-riddled festival that crumbled under the weight of its own expectation - and the real wonder of the Exumas: it’s all in the colour palette. Watch the original promo video and note every single frame with a sky blue or aquamarine palette; those images reveal a genuine picture of the real Exuma.

The aerial shots of uninhabited islands that float on turquoise oceans with boundaries defined by secluded beachfront and ivory white sands: that is the real Exuma, an archipelago of 365 islands within the Bahamas’ chain of 700.

The Exumas from from above Credit: getty

Great Exuma, where Fyre found a dormant property to host its guests, is an inhabited island with a small population and a local business sector that survives on a tourism-based economy. There are also uninhabited islands like Shroud Cay, where mangrove creeks slice the island like saltwater rivers; and privately owned islands like Norman’s Cay, which has an airstrip and a few holiday rental properties, or the neighbouring Highbourne Cay with a full-service marina and boutique luxury resort.

It is common to take island-hopping day excursions, which means the imagery of a boater’s paradise is also true. Speedboats creating white trails across the translucent blue sea, novice snorkelers swimming through submerged seaplanes and underwater caves: that is Exuma. And because of protective, local laws that make all beaches public (up to the high tide watermark), you can pull up to any and enjoy time in the sand, with cocktails (if you bring them yourself).   

Some of the promotional material was filmed in Staniel Cay and Black Point, islands with airstrips where commercial flights land, and several places to stay, including a small marina resort. Chartering a Cessna to fly in a small group (as in not 10,000 people) is a common occurrence. In Staniel Cay, it is entirely possible to step off a private plane, walk across the road (there is no airport), hop in a boat and be off on an excursion to the Exuma Land and Sea National Park.

The Exuma International Airport is in Great Exuma, the largest, most populated island in the chain, where the festival took place. In a remote island context, populated means about 7,300 people, and “international” has a different flavour as well.

To find a comparable airport, think of the world’s smallest: for example Barra Airport, on Barra Island, Scotland, which is literally a beach. Start there and scale down to understand an “international airport” in the Out Islands of The Bahamas. The physical buildings are often no larger than a two-bedroom house, with far fewer comforts. Essentially, international means the runway is long and safe enough to be certified for international flights to land. This perhaps give more insight into the folly of Fyre.

The Out Islands are not mass-market tourist destinations. They are nothing like Nassau, the Bahamas capital, which is home to mega hotels, including the 2,300-room Atlantis Resort. The Out Islands cater to seasoned travellers who want to get away from spring breakers and cruise ship passengers; who want romantic retreats and local encounters; who want to make their own party on a private boat or around a bonfire in front of a beachfront villa.   

Fyre Festival co-founders Ja Rule and Billy McFarland Credit: NETFLIX

The fraud of Fyre was convincing impressionable and uninformed travellers that a boutique experience on a remote island getaway was replicable on the scale of a mega music festival hosted for 10,000 guests.

In the year of Fyre, 2017, tourism statistics put Exuma’s average monthly air arrivals at around 5,000. April was the highest month with 7,245 air arrivals. Put that into perspective, Fyre was attempting to double the island’s average monthly intake on a single weekend: and already the busiest weekend of the year at that.

Tourism activity in Great Exuma congregates around the protected Elizabeth Harbour and its barrier islands. In peak season, Elizabeth Harbour is a city on water; the masthead lights from hundreds of sailboats illuminate the night sky like hovering stars. On the busiest weekend, domestic tourists book out the entire island: rooms, rental cars, flights and everything else you could imagine. The weekend for the National Family Island Regatta, referenced in the documentary and in April, is sacred for Bahamians.

Without a doubt, Fyre Festival was a poorly conceived and even more poorly executed pipedream. Anyone who watched the documentaries can see with their own eyes; it was an unmitigated disaster that made Great Exuma look like a fool’s paradise. But the backdrop of the Fyre Festival, the Exuma Islands themselves, is as real as the promotional video made it seem. Every year, more than 60,000 international travellers, coming as couples, families and small groups, make the fantasy real.