Hundreds of Star Wars fans planning to follow in the footsteps of Luke Skywalker and set foot on Skellig Michael this year are facing disappointment after the Office of Public Works (OPW) said it has no plans to extend the short visitor season to the protected Co Kerry island.
Tourist operators in west Kerry are anticipating a huge surge in interest in the isolated Unesco World Heritage site from both Irish and overseas visitors, after it featured in the final scene of the record-breaking blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
However, many visiting Star Wars enthusiasts could be left frustrated, after it was confirmed that visitor numbers will remain capped at 180 per day, and the island’s four-and-a-half month season will be not be extended to cater for increased tourist demand.
It also means there could be little financial benefit to the 15 boatmen, who are each licensed to ferry 12 passengers a day to the island — with a number of operators pointing out that demand already exceeded supply before the publicity generated by the release of the latest installment of the sci-fi saga.
Earlier this week, The Force Awakens was credited with helping boost online searches for accommodation in Co Kerry by 30%. Bookings site hotels.com also revealed searches for Kerry on the company’s US website surged by 60% last month compared to December the previous year, while UK searches on the site more than doubled for the same period.
One B&B owner in Portmagee said his phone “has been hopping” after he set up a special two-night ‘Star Wars package’ following the release of the movie.
Gerard Kennedy, who runs the Moorings guesthouse and Bridge Bar said his 18-room premises is almost booked out for May, primarily as a result of publicity generated by the film. During the summer, Mark Hamill, who plays reclusive Jedi master Luke Skywalker, entertained locals in the Bridge Bar by pulling pints (see video) and signing autographs.
However, Mr Kennedy said he fears many film fans hoping to visit Skellig Michael could be left disappointed after it was confirmed that numbers allowed onto the remote ancient monastic settlement this year won’t change.
Mr Kennedy called on the OPW to extend the season — which runs from May 14 to October 2 this year — and open up from the start of April.
He said: “If the season was extended, it would be helpful to everyone. The problem is the season is too short and there are not enough boats. We’re well used to tourists here and we get very busy in the summer anyway, but I’d worry that this year we might get overwhelmed by people trying to get out to Skellig Michael. I’d love to see access to the island granted from the beginning of April. There’s no doubt all the boats would be full.”
Eoin Walsh, who runs Skellig Boat Trips, said: “Star Wars is going to have little benefit for me, because I’ll always fill my boat anyway. The only thing that would help would be if the OPW opened the island up from Easter until the end of October.”
Between 2011 and 2013, the OPW extended the season on a pilot basis by 10 weeks from April to late October to assess interest amongst visitors, but has since reverted back to the reduced period.
The state agency insists that the visitor season is dictated by the weather and prevailing sea conditions, and points out that accessing the island — where there have been a number of fatalities in the past — outside this period carries huge risks. In a statement, Máire Ní Fhaircheallaigh, spokeswoman for the OPW, confirmed that the length of the season will not be changed, adding: “The season has generally been at the current length for many years. However, by agreement with the boatmen, the OPW extended the season for three years between 2011 and 2013 to assess whether there was interest among visitors at that time of year. However, in each of the three years, the island was closed early, as the weather turned, and in many cases, the boatmen had ceased operations for the year mid-month.”
However, Mr Kennedy believes that he has found another way to capitalise on the growing interest from film fans.
His two-night Stars Wars package includes a visit to the pre-production site, an inside story on the filming of the movie, a visit to the four viewing points of Skellig Michael, a chance to pull a pint of plain in the same bar that Hamill did, and a complimentary ‘May The Craic Be With You’ T-shirt.
Mr Kennedy added: “I’ve been getting up to 30 calls a day for bookings, which is very unusual for this time of year. I’ve been in the business 27 years, and this looks like it’s going to be the busiest year yet.”
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