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Tourists went to New Zealand for Lord of the Rings. Will Star Wars movie fans go to Kerry?

The new Star Wars will bring balance to more than simply the force; maybe it might help balance some books as well, writes Darren Mooney.

Darren Mooney

THERE WAS CONSIDERABLE buzz when it was discovered that JJ Abrams wanted to film sections of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Skellig Michael off the coast of County Kerry.

The scenes were shot in July and August 2014. Disney has understandably kept the story details of Star Wards: The Force Awakens under wraps, understanding the anticipation building towards the film’s December 2015 release.

The force is strong it seems, so strong that even the Irish Film Board has been sworn to secrecy on the matter.

It seems that Skellig Michael is to be important to the new Star Wars trilogy. Recent reports suggest that director Rian Johnson’s as-yet-untitled Star Wars: Episode VIII has returned to the site for filming. It is obviously too early to confirm whether Colin Trevorrow will bring the still-in-pre-production Star Wars: Episode IX back to the isolated island.

No shortage of controversy 

The arrival of the production crew has caused no shortage of controversy. Despite the presence of an ecologist on set to ensure a minimal disturbance to the historical and ecological site there are those who sense a disturbance in the force – as if the local wildlife and the cultural curators of the site suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

Stretched Star Wars metaphors aside, any debate about the conservation of Skellig Michael should acknowledge that the ecological and the historical conservation of the island have long been at odds with one another.

star-16-390x285 Source: Bold Puppy via Bold Puppy

“The nest burrows of puffins and petrels cause damage to the monument, while conservation works and visitors can disturb the seabirds,” noted a UNESCO report in 2007. The arguments are strong over this one.

Given how little we actually know about the production and development of the new Star Wars trilogy – gossip and rumour-mongering aside – it is interesting to wonder what impact the decision to shoot part of the new trilogy off the coast of Ireland might have on popular culture.

It goes without saying that Star Wars is a potent pop cultural force. Even the scruffiest-looking nerf herder would recognise the way that George Lucas’ 1977 film changed the way in which we engage with popular culture. Along with Jaws, it paved the way for the current blockbuster model of popular cinema, rising from the ashes of the old studio system.

Bigger than Jurassic World 

It is currently estimated that Star Wars: The Force Awakens could earn more than $615 million internationally during its opening weekend. This would surpass Jurassic World, and there is speculation that it could become the fastest grossing film of all time.Skellig Michael will be on a whole lot of screens.

Experience has demonstrated that these pop culture landmarks can often prove of benefit to the more tangible landmarks that provide their distinctive vistas.
Consider the case of New Zealand. The country experienced a 40% growth in tourism between 2000 and 2006, which many commentators credit to the success and popularity of The Lord of the Rings.

In 2012, six percent of international tourists (approximately 150,000 people) cited The Lord of the Rings as their reason for visiting the country.

Of course, The Lord of the Rings is not necessarily a like-for-like comparison. After all, Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s works are tied to New Zealand. The new Star Wars movies are shooting around the world. Skellig Michael is just one location of many. It might be particularly important to us, but who is to say that it will be particularly important to tourists?

Perhaps Game of Thrones is a more apt example. HBO’s award-winning and much-beloved television show is set across multiple continents with multiple climates.

Northern Ireland is just associated with a small part of the fictional continent of Westeros. However, estimates suggest that Game of Thrones is worth as much as £8.6 million annually to the region.

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Kerry tourism 

That said, perhaps the potential tourist attraction to the region is anchored to its plot importance. Northern Ireland is especially important to the world of Game of Thrones as the home of the Starks of Winterfell – the characters who served as the protagonists of the first season, even if their numbers have been scattered and diminished with every following season.

Certainly, Tunisia remains a site of great importance to Star Wars fans, due to its association with the planet Tatooine – home to both Anakin and Luke Skywalker. Indeed, it offers examples of the benefits of this sort of tourism.

In 2011, Star Wars fans fundraised to restore the model of Luke’s childhood home.
In 2014, the Tunisian government was able to collaborate with fans to raise money for the preservation of the city of Tataouine, which was under threat from desertification.

Pop culture tourism tends to buoy other tourist attractions.

While Belfast might have been the home of the real Titanic, a lot of people credit the success of James Cameron’s blockbuster for boosting international awareness of the association.

“It’s all because of the movie,” explains Ally Hill, a marketing director for Titanic Belfast.

Certainly, the success of Downton Abbey has helped to fund extensive repairs to Highclere Castle, which sees up to 1,500 visitors per day.

It is perhaps too early to make an educated guess as to the potential impact that shooting on Skellig Michael might have on Irish tourism, given how little we know about the context of the shoot. However, maybe the new Star Wars will bring balance to more than simply the force; maybe it might help balance some books as well.

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