Exuma is one of the most beautiful places on earth, between its clear turquoise waters and white sandy beaches. But what really put this place on the map were its famous swimming pigs. They became a huge draw for tourists, bringing tons of money into Exuma.
However, now that tourism has been grounded to a halt (or rather, a stop and go), who has been feeding the famous swine?
That burden has fallen on struggling tour operators in Exuma. They say that the government has not helped at all shoulder the cost of feeding the island’s main attraction.
Exuma Water Sports owner Raymond Lightbourn expected to retire this year, but COVID-19 threw a wrench in his plans. On top of losing his revenue and savings, Lightbourn is now also spending around $70 a day to feed 12 pigs on White Bay Cay.
“I tried to get the Ministry of Tourism to help, but they declined to do so,” said Mr. Lightbourn. “I asked them for $12,000 because that would help us until February but they said they don’t have it. They said I should ask the homeowners for help, but they don’t realise that people don’t have the money.”
Sandals Emerald Bay Resort on Exuma also used to help feed the pigs before its closure this year. While the resort is expected to reopen in February, and hopefully resume paying for some of the feeding costs, tour operators like Lightbourn aren’t sure if they can keep the animals until then.
Bernadette Chamberlin, president of the Original Swimming Pigs Limited, a company that looks after some 60 pigs on Big Major Cay, said she twice asked tourism officials for help but got rebuffed.
“I have to beg people for a donation,” she said. “We are living on donations from people around here. A couple of tour operators used to give donations but they haven’t done it in a while because of the pandemic. Tourism told us they could assist with medical help for the pigs but basically that’s about it.”
According to Chamberlin, Big Major Cay is fertile enough to sustain the pigs for a short time without intervention due to the silver palms, berries, and wild dillies. However, “the cay won’t be able to sustain them for long,” she said. “When the pandemic first started and there was a total lockdown and we couldn’t go out to feed them, we noticed the pigs started to lose weight.”
For Mr. Lightbourn and Ms. Chamberlin, food assistance from the government is a no-brainer.
“The pigs are the number one thing,” Ms. Chamberlin said. “Every time people come, they want to see the pigs. Tourism knows this because our pigs are always on billboards around the world. Not helping is disappointing because they represent The Bahamas and that’s why we assumed our government would help.”
Janet Johnson, CEO and executive director of the Tourism Development Corporation said that operators who reply on the pigs should be the ones sustaining their maintenance though and that officials want to better regulate the sector.
“We’re trying to regulate the pigs, the proliferation of tours that have developed and as part of that we’re trying to ensure the tour operators that are bringing visitors to see the pigs are paying the fees which would be to the benefit of the welfare of the pigs,” she said, “If tour operators were paying their way, this would not be a consideration.”
“We’re working very hard to bring some regulations, to provide medical care for those pigs,” Johnson said. “It’s a challenge because these tours pop up and they don’t think about all the things that need to go with them and now we’re having to try and catch up to what’s happened. The pigs have been great ambassadors to the Bahamas, lots of people come just to see them, but we have tours at Spanish Wells, in Long Island as well.”
“These are private enterprises,” she added. “All of those people that are benefiting from that private enterprise ought to be contributing to it and to preserving that asset that they are benefiting from. Bahamians tend to want to consider it a free ride. Someone has to feed them, somebody has to carry water for them, someone has to take care of their medical bills, it just doesn’t happen like a miracle and this is what we’re trying to get them to appreciate.”
For now, it seems that tour operators are on their own. While locals have always done their part protecting the pigs, sheltering them during storms, and bringing fresh water and food, it’s unknown how long they can support these wild creatures that were once the main attraction for Exuma. When tourists start returning they may find the famous swimming pigs gone unless something changes.