Saturday 1 October 2016

‘Star Wars’ island location off limits to early visitors after storm damage

Nick Bramhill

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

Tourism chiefs in west Kerry have noted a huge surge in interest in the isolated Unesco World Heritage site from overseas visitors
Tourism chiefs in west Kerry have noted a huge surge in interest in the isolated Unesco World Heritage site from overseas visitors

The Office of Public Works has stepped up measures to prevent unauthorised boat landings on Skellig Michael ahead of the official start to the visitor season next month  — and warned it will be keeping a “close watch” on the protected Co Kerry island.

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Tourism chiefs in west Kerry have noted a huge surge in interest in the isolated Unesco World Heritage site from overseas visitors, after it featured at the climax of smash-hit blockbuster, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

But the OPW said it has no plans to give into demands to extend the short visitor season, warning that accessing the breathtaking island at present is particularly risky due to damage caused by storms over the winter.

The OPW’s stance has caused a bitter rift with many of the boatmen licensed to carry passengers to the island, who say the restricted four-and-a-half month season — which runs from May 14 to October 2 — is making it increasingly difficult for them to make a living.

The OPW is issuing 15 permits for the upcoming season, up from 11 last year, which will allow 180 tourists to visit the 200m-high outpost every day once the season starts — up from last year’s daily capacity of 132 visitors.

But veteran boatman Joe Roddy said the curtailed season is making it more and more challenging to cover costs — and will lead to disappointment for hundreds of visiting Star Wars fans.

Valentia Island-raised Joe, who’s worked at sea for more than 50 years, said: “Demand is very high because of the Star Wars movie, but it won’t be of any benefit to us at all.  I can only carry 12 passengers a day and I’ll be booked out anyway during the season.

“The only thing that would help would be if the OPW extended the season. It doesn’t make sense. There’s been some fine days this month where I could have taken visitors out to the island and we understand the sea conditions better than anyone. There’s no way we’re going to risk going out to the island if the conditions aren’t right.

“The season was longer a few years ago, but now it’s become more difficult than ever to survive on the Skelligs only. The engines cost huge money, around €40,000 to replace, insurance costs are high, as are the costs to maintain our boats over the winter.  And if you want to buy a new boat, it will cost around €150,000.   Some people seem to think we must be doing really well because the boats are full during the season, but the truth is it’s a big struggle to make a living.”

However, the OPW stressed it is “not feasible” to open up the island to the public before mid-May, as its staff carry out maintenance and safety work and train guides ahead of the start of the season.

Spokeswoman Maire Ni Fhaircheallaigh said:  “We have an additional risk factor to contend with in that winter storms have severely damaged a section of the main visitor access to the point of ascent to the monastic structures.

“Currently, the OPW is urgently engaging with the work necessary to manage repairs. However, the damage presents a risk to visitors and early pre-season access is especially dangerous this year.”

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