Skellig Michael sees huge surge in visitor numbers

Heritage site came to global prominence after Star Wars scene

Skellig Michael, Co Kerry is a Unesco world heritage site.

Skellig Michael, Co Kerry is a Unesco world heritage site.

 

Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry has seen a huge surge in visitor numbers, according 2016 figures released by the Office of Public Works (OPW).

The fragile monastic site which has come to huge global prominence with the filming of Star Wars scenes, saw almost 14,700 people land on the island – well above the figure considered sustainable in the current Unesco approved management plan for the island .

The OPW said the 2016 figure was “exceptional” and due to good weather during the mid-May to October visitor season. However if the rise continues, there would be concern about the Skellig’s ability to absorb such numbers, it said in response to questions.

Serious Rockfall occurred at Skellig Michael in April.
Serious Rockfall occurred at Skellig Michael in April.

Skellig Michael is the most spectacularly situated of all the early medieval Christian monastic sites and hermitages and the entire island is a world heritage site, because of its natural as well as built environment.

The current management plan, 2008-2018, said since 1995 the average number of visitors was around 11,100 per season. This figure was considered sustainable “in terms of protection of the national monument,” the plan said.

In 2015, the number of visitors was 12,560; in 2016 it reached 14,678 according to the OPW.

Locally, it is accepted the “Star Warsation” combined with a vigorous Tourism Ireland campaign is leading to huge pressure for access. Demand for boat trips is extremely high, according to local boatmen who want the season extended.

Recently Valentia island man Fionán Murphy, who operates one of only fifteen, 12-passenger boats permitted to serve the Skellig said the “pull” or the force of Star Wars is obvious , with huge demand by American visitors.

The OPW says the 2016 figure was “exceptional” and was due to weather. It also said the 11,100 figure was not “ an absolute limit” but is rather reflecting that it is a sustainable level of visitors which has been experienced over a relatively long period since a strong drive was made to reduce the load in the mid 1990’s.

“While the total number of visitors to Skellig Michael for 2016 was 14,648, this was an exceptional yearly outcome reflecting more benign access than is generally usual and typically, total numbers are in fact lower,” the OPW said.

Analysis of recent admission levels carried out by the OPW indicate that, having regard to the fact that natural forces of weather and sea will significantly limit access to the island by as much as 50 per cent typically across a season, the experience over several recent years shows that the volumes arriving at the Island are not at this stage in the critical range.It has however promised to monitor the numbers

“If if the numbers were to increase significantly and remain there consistently for the medium and longer term, there would be a heightened concern about the ability of the site to continue to absorb this pressure,” the OPW said in a statement.

Earlier this year, a major rock fall, for the second year in succession, led to fears the opening of the island would have to be put back.

The OPW insists the two biggest rock falls in forty years were due to weather, rabbits and probably birds burrowing into the dry rock , and not Star Wars filming or visitor numbers .

As it transpired, it was weather which led to the postponement for a week.