Fota Wildlife Park ‘must reopen’ or attraction may falter

Cork’s 100-acre tourist stop faces uncertain future unless revenues recover, says director

Fota Wildlife Park must reopen and attract maximum visitors possible during peak summer months to make up for revenues lost due to the coronavirus lockdown, director Sean McKeown has said.

Mr McKeown said that he was hopeful the east Cork attraction would be able reopen shortly as April is an important month for the park. This is especially so this year as it has been closed since January 1st, resulting in a a dramatic fall in revenue.

He explained that it costs about €4.5 million a year to run the 100 acre enterprise, which opened in 1983 and houses some 135 species.

In 2019 Fota, which has some 1,350 animals, attracted about 462,000 visitors, generating an income of €5.2 million. But last year numbers fell to 385,000 as the park closed from St Patrick’s Day until May 22nd as a result of the first lockdown.


“Last year, we lost all of April which is a huge month for us with the Easter holidays . . . there would have been some days during the Easter holidays in 2019 when we were attracting 8,000 visitors a day, which is very significant,” he said.

“From January to May in 2019, we brought in about €2.1 million in income from visitors. But obviously with the lockdown our revenue was down and if we remain closed until June we’re going to miss out completely on that €2 million worth of income,” he said.

Mr McKeown said that June through to September is critical to Fota’s financial success, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of its annual income. And if the park is unable to open during those months then its long-term viability would be compromised.

While income is seasonal, so too are costs with food and heating bills for the animals increasing during winter months. And while food costs fall during the summer, the season can also mean a rise in staffing costs.

“Generally, food and heating costs increase during the winter and fall during the spring and summer. But conversely our staffing costs go up – we employ around 60 people most of the year but during the summer months . . . our staff numbers go up to about 90,” he said.

Mr McKeown said that approximately 25 per cent of its visitors come on membership tickets, suggesting that they are in the main local to Cork. The rest of Munster and Connaught account for a further 25 per cent, with Leinster accounting for another 25 per cent. Another 25 per cent are from Ulster, resulting in a broadly even spread of visitors outside the greater Cork area.

Mr McKeown said various surveys in recent years have suggested Fota is worth €220 million to the greater Cork economy.

“East Cork is a real family destination. More foreign tourists go to west Cork and Kerry but those coming to east Cork tend to be families and obviously last year, because of the pandemic, we saw more people opt for staycations. We had our highest ever numbers of visitors from Kerry last year.”

While Fota received €1 million funding from the Government last December, that cash was for several capital works including the repair of 500m of sea wall to prevent flooding in the park’s lower lake area and completion of two monkey houses. But that funding can’t be drawn down until the work is complete and progress on all three projects has stopped.

Exchequer funding?

Fota received a €550,000 grant for animal welfare and husbandry in December from the Department of Heritage and that has helped. Mr McKeown is hopeful that this funding will keep the park going until the end of June, but he’s worried about the future after that if there is no reopening.

“We featured on an RTÉ News report last week and I was asked what does the future hold. And I simply said that if we don’t open before September, then we face the real prospect of closure. It wasn’t that I was launching a fundraising campaign, simply answering a question.”

But this prompted a public response and over the last few days €25,000 has been donated to help meet running costs.

“We can scrape money together via a bank loan. But, long term, if we didn’t open until September and lost €2.2 million in income by being shut in July and August, the possibility at the end would be closure. But we would hope the Government will support us and it won’t come to anything like that.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times