Thousands of people from around the world partying for 10 days in the middle of the Argentinian wilderness sounds like an ambitious endeavour even before Covid-19. But a global pandemic has done little to sway organisers of the Global Eclipse –Patagonia Gathering, who are determined to charge ahead and refusing to refund ticket holders.
Despite Argentina nearing 1 million Covid-19 cases and authorities currently refusing to let international tourists into the country, the electronic dance music (EDM) trance festival is still scheduled for December 2020.
The event has been in the works for three years, with a huge number of fans purchasing tickets before Covid-19. Organisers are refusing to provide refunds on the grounds that the festival has not been cancelled, despite there being no way for the vast majority of ticket holders – including those in Australia – to attend.
The event – in the category of world-famous festivals such as Burning Man or Rainbow Serpent – promised unrivalled views of the 14 December solar eclipse and an experience “full of art, music, educational workshops, yoga, dance, permaculture and myriad opportunities to inspire the soul and enliven the spirit”.
‘They just wouldn’t reply’
Melbourne student Billie Calwell booked the nearly AU$700 (US$500) ticket on a payment plan in January as a treat after three years of working without a break.
“It’s absolutely one of the biggest events to happen. [Eclipse festivals] only happen every four years and there is a lot of hype around it. It’s like you kind of have to go at least once,” she said.
“It was all good until the pandemic hit. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I should cancel my payment plan because if I do I can’t get a refund,’” she said.
“I would email them and comment on their social posts and they just wouldn’t reply.”
Calwell assumed the festival would be quickly cancelled so continued paying for her ticket, but on 26 August, after months of silence from organisers, they announced that the Patagonian party would go ahead.
Instead of full refunds, organisers Global Eclipse Inc and Global Eclipse Argentina have offered a “buyback” program, whereby customers are able to receive 50% of their ticket price, along with the cost of any accommodation and parking passes, in exchange for signing a legal document that will “release [the organisers] from liability in regards to [the] Patagonia Gathering”.
Calwell said she feels that isn’t good enough.
“You have the right to receive goods or services to the standards that are expected to be delivered … It’s basically impossible to do that. If we’re not able to go to Argentina and to go to a festival, I feel like we should be entitled to a free 100% refund,” she said.
Calwell did receive a short personalised response email from the company on 7 September advising her of when the buyback program would end.
New South Wales resident Mel, who asked for her last name not to be included, said she was shocked this situation has unfolded in the EDM hippy subculture.
“This isn’t the community that you would expect a result like this from. You would expect this from a really corporate standpoint,” Mel, who sought a refund via her bank, said.
“What part of this do you think is actually still going to be realised? It’s not going to happen.”
The organisers are associated with a number of other successful trance festivals, including the annual Symbiosis Gathering in California and multiple eclipse gatherings in Australia. In the email sent to ticket holders in August, viewed by Guardian Australia, Global Eclipse Inc stated they were unable to provide full refunds.
“We’ve had requests to ‘refund the money’ but it’s not possible to retrieve sunk costs for labour, and niche physical assets are not easy to sell in the downtrodden Argentine economy,” the email read.
“Humans are social beings. Isolation has taken a toll on all of us. We are meant to connect and we are meant to gather. We plan to do it safely in the best way possible.
“We are producers with decades of experience who are 2.5 years into a three-year project and we’ve learned to prepare for permutations of earth, wind, and fire but none of us had ‘global pandemic’ on our 2020 bingo card.”
The company noted in another email that ticket sales were “final, no refund passes for a rain or shine event”.
“It’s not like we were scared of the rain,” Mel said.
“World events have created a situation where we can’t do this and neither can you … I don’t feel like they should be making people feel responsible for their loss. We’re all at a loss.”
Calwell and Mel both opted not to proceed with the buyback program. Instead, Calwell lodged a dispute with her bank the day the buyback scheme was announced but has not heard back.
A ‘force majeure’ event
One of the chief complaints among potential attendees is the lack of transparency regarding the current state of the festival. Despite the event now being less than two months away, Guardian Australia was unable to find a publicly available list of artists booked to play.
“If it is happening, where is the lineup? What’s the plan? And it’s almost like they’ve gone silent,” Mel said.
Those who still wish to attend have been asked to sign an “attendance waiver”.
With one of the highest infection rates in the world, a death toll of over 25,000, and a fragile economy, Argentina is already feeling the strain without the risk of potentially infectious foreigners attending the festival.
“I don’t think it would be ethical for wealthy westerners to be potentially taking coronavirus to vulnerable places,” Mel said.
Argentinians have also been subject to one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world, with regular internal flights set to resume for the first time since March this week. Social gatherings have been periodically banned, and a huge number of major events cancelled in order to curb the virus’s spread.
The event is being held near the small town of Las Coloradas, which has a population of under 1,000 and is four hours from the nearest major city. The festival’s website also boasts about the site’s lack of mobile reception, raising questions on how effective communication would be in the event of an outbreak.
In an email, the organisers note, “the site is ready to host thousands of safely distanced people”.
Calwell said this decision made her doubt the company’s philosophy.
“I think that it really brings to light the question of their integrity and how much they actually do care about their attendees if you’re putting people at risk like that.”
Lisa Spagnolo, an expert in international commercial law from Monash University, said if the festival does go ahead it’s unlikely ticket holders will be eligible for a refund.
“The problem is that the consumer is getting exactly what they bargained for, but they simply cannot make their own way to the event,” she said.
But depending on which country’s law is applied, Spagnolo said this could be considered a “force majeure” or “hardship” situation, meaning circumstances have drastically changed since the purchase was made.
In this case, there may be a legal scenario where the costs are split between the provider and consumer.
Spagnolo said documents such as the buyback contract are common in the legal field and are a form of settlement payment used to end a disputed claim.
But not all members of the EDM community are upset with Global Eclipse Inc. Some, like Yuri Shamis, were happy to let the company use the other 50% of their ticket fee to cover sunk costs.
“I can only imagine the amount of effort that goes into putting on a festival like that,” Shamis said. “I know that their heart is always in it, and I know that they didn’t set out to screw anyone over … I don’t feel like there has been any moral wrongdoing.”
Guardian Australia sought comment from Global Eclipse Inc and was yet to receive a formal response.