independent

Thursday 17 January 2019

Rising tide as 250,000 visit busy lighthouse

One quarter of a million people visited Hook Lighthouse this year, making it a record 2018 for the tourist attraction.

Run as a social enterprise all year round, the lighthouse employs 20 staff, with ten additional staff taken on during the summer months.

Lighthouse manager Ann Waters said the operational lighthouse and visitor centre aims to provide a unique, signature experience for visitors from around the world.

She said: 'All of the staff are conscious that we are just the current custodians in an ancient lighthouse.'

Ms Waters praised her hard working staff, saying: 'There is a lot of lateral thinking so it's a great, positive place to be working. We are all very aware that we are lucky to be doing what we're doing.'

Teenagers aged 16 and up are employed at the lighthouse, where they are given additional responsibilities each year.

'When a student comes in at 16 they can be shy but by the time they finish college they are giving guided tours. This gives them a lot of confidence for their future and can even change their pathway in life and it gives them pride of place.'

The lighthouse is funded by the Commission of Irish Lights, Wexford County Council, Fáilte Ireland and Pobal.

'We have taken every opportunity Fáilte Ireland have put our way and we have grown with them year on year. We have never turned down training or mentoring. Ireland's Ancient East is the most important brand alignment that we have. We have been working with them since 2016 and we have seen our international visitors grow by 30 per cent in that time.'

Ms Waters said the lighthouse has benefited from working with Visit Wexford, Hook Peninsula Tourism and the Guiding Lights: Great Lighthouses of Ireland.

She outlined the history of the lighthouse including how it was the second last lighthouse to be switched to fully automated. The tourist attraction was opened in 2001 by President Mary McAleese.

Initially predictions that it would attract 5,000 visitors a year for the first three years were widely off, as it had 25,000 visitors in its first summer.

'Since then we have grown our numbers little by little, including ticketed people through the tower. I am chasing the figure of 50,000 through the tower for next year. Our international visitors have grown to 30 per cent, mainly Germans and Americans, and there is a better spend with them.'

The first group of Chinese students is due in January, opening up another market.

Ms Waters said lighthouse management initiated a festivals and events programme in 2006.

'We knew there was an opportunity to bring people in to use the place as an amenity.'

Huge crowds visited on that day in July 2005 when the tall ships passed by Hook Head having set sail from Waterford and since that time Ms Waters said visitors are spending a longer time in the Hook area.

The lighthouse benefited from Fáilte Ireland animation funding in 2012, receiving a capital grant for the cobble yard and new walkway around the tower.

'By now the place was nice so people could come and enjoy the place as an amenity. At the time it was really important to us as families were struggling (during the recession) and they could come and enjoy the place and not be hassled.'

In 2015 the lighthouse benefited from Ireland's Ancient East ancient spaces funding.

'We probably have the oldest non-ecclesiastical building in Ireland that still serves its original purpose. Today people need a more interactive experience.'

An extended 50 minute tour involving holograms of St Dubhain and William Marshall who built the structure, has been a big success.

In keeping with an ethos of encouraging locals to champion the Hook Peninsula, Ms Waters invited people living in the locality to enjoy a free tour of the lighthouse this weekend from 10 a.m. till 5 pm.

'The locals are our ambassadors. I would love for everyone to come along,' she said.

Ms Waters said the sunrise and sunset tours have been a slow burner, but stressed the need for the lighthouse to be a hive of activity.

A new menu has attracted a lot of local residents to the venue and earned the lighthouse team a place in the finals of Irish Tourism Industry Awards in the food category, while Hook Head Adventures has been nominated in the tourism experience category in the same competition.

Ms Waters urged all of the tourist business operators in attendance not to look to the west of Ireland for comparisons.

'The west has 50 years on us so we should just take what Ireland's Ancient East brings and just go with it. Our shoulder seasons have improved and we have events like Imbolc in February which is a little bit different to Valentine's Day, which attracts a crowd and we are attracting people through always having something put on our social media and our PR.'

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