Fandom menace: Skellig Michael tourism plans shot down

Minister of State rejects calls to extend island’s visitor season due to ‘Star Wars’ demand

Skellig Michael, where scenes for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and the upcoming ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ were filmed.

Skellig Michael, where scenes for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and the upcoming ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ were filmed.

 

Calls to extend the visitor season and number of boats operating to Skellig Michael, the Unesco World Heritage site off the coast of Co Kerry, to cater for increased demand after global exposure on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, have been firmly ruled out by Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works Kevin Moran.

Visitor numbers are to be “robustly controlled”, Mr Moran has written to local councillor Michael Cahill, who had been lobbying for an extension at either end of the season on behalf of Skellig boatmen.

The current management plan for the delicate site says just over 11,000 visitors per season are sustainable – however, the past two years have seen far more than that number.

The boatmen want the season to run from April 1st to the end of October, instead of the current mid-May to early October season, to cater for demand as well as days when the boats simply cannot operate to the island because of bad weather.

Obligations

However, Mr Moran has ruled out any extension. The OPW has obligations to prepare the island and it cannot allow visitors to land before guides are in situ, he said. This echoes a warning by the OPW last year against out-of-season visits.

Mr Moran said what is viewed as the “traditional” extended season did run between 2011 and 2013, but weather turned so bad in October one year, boats could not travel and guides had to be airlifted off by helicopter.

“While increases in tourism are certainly desirable from a national economic point of view, this has to be managed where sensitive heritage sites such as Skellig are concerned,” Mr Moran said.

Skellig had become “more visible” in recent years, the Minister conceded.

“However, this cannot be matched by an ever-expanding increase in the available visitor capacity and for this reason the OPW will not be changing the current limits on either boat numbers and passengers and the length of the season,” he said.

Footfall

The OPW had set itself to “robustly limit” the footfall at Skellig Michael.

It was clear the monastic island had become “a potent symbol of the unique landscape of the Irish west coast and is a key icon of the Wild Atlantic Way tourist brand,” Mr Moran added.

The plan, already under way, was to use Skellig Michael’s “tourist pull” to other land-based sites in the south west, both private and State-owned. This would “rebalance” the situation, he felt.

Last year some 14,700 people were ferried from the mainland through the Atlantic to the fragile island with its 6th-century beehive stone monastery, the scene of Star Wars filming in 2014 and 2015.