Calls are growing for the short visitor season to Skellig Michael to be extended, after thousands of landings on the protected Co. Kerry island had to be cancelled due to adverse weather conditions and an untimely rockfall.
The UNESCO world heritage site will be closed off from next Saturday evening, as the restricted four-and-a-half month tourist season comes to an end.
The Atlantic outpost, which featured in two recent Star Wars blockbusters, was off limits for much of the previous two years due to the Covid pandemic.
But despite opening up in mid-May this year for its first full season since 2019, the number of landings has still fallen significantly short of pre-Covid levels.
According to official figures released by the Office of Public Works (OPW), 13,300 people had visited the island up to last Monday [September 19] - a figure which is notably lower than the numbers that flocked to the island in the post-Star Wars, pre-pandemic years.
Soaring inflation and a reduction in visiting overseas tourists - particularly those from the US - have been cited as contributing factors.
But nature has also played its part, with the OPW confirming that the island was closed off to visitors for a total of 48 days to date over the past season. Of the days the island was off limits to tourists, 28 of those were due to poor weather, whilst the remaining 20 were because of a rockfall shortly after the start of the season.
That means the 15 licensed boat operators, who are each permitted to transport up to 12 passengers a day to the far-flung isle, collectively missed out on close to 9,000 landings over the course of the season.
Now boat operators and other tourism-related businesses in south-west Kerry have called on the OPW to extend the short visitor season from next year.
Jamie Duff, one of four boat operators who run Portmagee-based Skellig Coast Adventures, said: "We've lost a lot of days to bad weather this season, so we really need a longer season. All we're asking is for the season to start two weeks earlier at the beginning of May. It would make a huge difference to us.
"We appreciate and support the work of the OPW in making sure the island is safe. That work is vital, but what we're asking for is that they do this work earlier in the year to allow the season to start at the beginning of May.
"Traditionally the season used to start in mid-April, so what we're asking for is not unreasonable."
The 45-year-old father-of-four added: "It's not just about the boatmen. Times are hard, and everybody who's involved in tourism would benefit from an extension to the season."
Gerard Kennedy, who runs the popular Moorings Guesthouse and Bridge Bar in Portmagee, said: "Things haven't been as good as pre-Covid times. There are less people around, and tourist numbers are definitely down in Kerry.
"But opening up Skellig Michael to visitors two weeks earlier would make a massive difference to everyone around here. We really need it to happen."
However, in a statement the OPW confirmed it had no plans to extend the visitor season to the monastic isle.
A spokesperson said: "Regarding the possibility of an earlier opening of the site the OPW plans each year to commence preparatory works in mid-April, in order to ready the site for visitors in mid-May.
"Due to the unpredictable weather and sea conditions in early April, it is not possible to commence preparatory works any sooner, and as a result an earlier opening date cannot be facilitated for operational reasons."