Visitor numbers to the Skellig Michael Unesco World Heritage site off the Kerry coast are now more than one and a half times what is considered environmentally safe.
Figures released by the Office of Public Works (OPW) show 16,792 landings onto the craggy, but fragile, island and its drystone sixth-century monastic site in 2018.
This is just 37 more than in 2017. However, it is substantially more than the 11,100 figure the outgoing 10-year management plan considers the “sustainable” number of visitors for the island.
The spike in the number of visitors is attributed to the popularity of Star Wars and the publicity surrounding the selection of the island, including by Tourism Ireland.
Unesco placed Skellig Michael on the World Heritage List in recognition of its outstanding universal value in 1996. It is also one of Ireland’s most important sites for breeding seabirds both in terms of size of colonies and diversity of species, according to the OPW which has recently announced a consultation process for a new 10-year management plan for the island.
In the years prior to Star Wars, which was filmed in 2014 and 2015, average annual visitor numbers were at or around 12,000.
Even then visitor numbers were slightly in excess of what they should be, according to Charles Stanley Smith of An Taisce and a spokesman for the Environmental Pillar group of conservation bodies which has expressed concern about the visitor numbers and the consultation process for a new management plan for the island.
He reiterated concerns put in writing to then heritage minister Heather Humphreys objecting to the filming of Star Wars on the island in the first place.
“The fragility of the historic remains cannot be overemphasised,” said An Taisce.
“None of it was ever intended for the human numbers and the levels of activity already occurring during the summer season.
An Taisce would object to any further increase in landings and instead would look for improvements of Skellig-related tourism projects on the mainland, he added.
Mr Stanley Smith said he was hopeful the consultation period up to January 18 on the new management plan announced before Christmas would be extended.
“Despite the clear importance of further debate on this issue, the Government decided that it was best to sneak in a public consultation at the end of December.”
It looks likely that the deadline will be extended to February. However, Mr Stanley Smith said the draft plan should be published and further submissions invited before it is submitted to Unesco.