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The Skellig Michael problem: How Kerry is preparing to manage an influx of tourists

With a profile boost other counties can only dream of, what effect will Star Wars have on The Kingdom?

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

MOST IRISH PEOPLE are familiar with Skellig Michael.

The towering rocky island lies off the coast of Kerry, and up until the 13th century was home to a small group of monks who lived in beehive huts.

You’d be hard pushed to find a more isolated and unforgiving environment to live in.

In a few short years, the story of these monks was opened up to a far wider audience after it served as Luke Skywalker’s hermitage in the latest installments of Star Wars.

Tourism in Kerry got a boost, as more people flocked to the county.

However, Skellig Michael is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors are strictly limited by number and to certain times of the year.

This means only a few people can actually get to Skellig Michael, and even then weather conditions might force the trip to be cancelled.

SKellig 10 Skellig Michael, as seen from above. Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

The site is also difficult to walk around, as well as may posing problems for anyone with a fear of heights.

While tourism has always been Kerry’s strong suit, the problem it now faces is a new wave of tourists who might primarily want to see one, isolated location. A small centre dedicated to the Skelligs, the Skellig Experience Visitor Centre, already exists, but it may not be enough to sate many.

TheJournal.ie spoke to some of those close to the tourism industry in Kerry for a glimpse of how they’re attempting to spread the tourism around the county, so hoards of disappointed tourists don’t start piling up at the boats to the Skelligs.

Port0 Portmagee's brief renaming to Porgmagee, after a small puffin-like creature seen in Star Wars. Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Many people you speak to in areas either close to where filming took place for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, or where the crew stayed or worked during their visit, have fond memories of when Star Wars came to town.

One of those people who is a familiar face to many is Gerard Kennedy, owner of The Moorings in Portmagee. This is where some of the crew stayed, and where the actors popped in for some food and drink – and the scene of the now famous video of Mark Hamill pouring a pint of Guinness.

Source: Moorings, Portmagee/YouTube

When the crew first arrived, they managed to convince Kennedy that they were from the BBC, scouting out the location for a documentary about puffins. It wasn’t until they asked about booking rooms for more than 150 people that he realised it was something more significant.

His eyes light up recalling what it was like to have the actors sit around the bar, and speaks of how they smashed any pre-conceived notion anyone that they might shun the public and want to keep to themselves. He says visitors still come to the bar and ask where each actor sat, just to get a photo.

Kennedy has high hopes for the lasting effect will be to Kerry, citing Ryan’s Daughter as an example. This 1970s film based around an Irish woman’s affair with a British soldier was filmed in Kerry, and the area still receives visitors looking to see the sights featured in the film.

However, he concedes there is a possibility of the fabric of the area changing if tourist numbers reach critical levels, but stresses it’s still far from that – and it could be something welcomed by the community.

Port20 Geard Kennedy Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

“The positive thing about it is that tourism is so big here, and there’s so many employed in it, people will want that,” he said.

But Kennedy touched on a crucial aspect of this: It’s all about directing tourists not only to Star Wars locations, but to try to spread them out to other areas – a ‘Come to Kerry for Star Wars, stay for everything else’ kind of attitude.

One example of a location striking a healthy balance between this – tapping into Stars Wars craze – but focusing on what else Kerry has to offer is the Skellig Monks Trial, launched last year.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

This walk skirts around the town of Ballinaskelligs, taking in local history old and modern, such as the laying of the first transatlantic cable, but also an important link to the monks who lived on Ballinaskelligs.

Close to the town lies an abandoned abbey, lying mostly in ruins but with some recent repair work being carried out at the site. This was the land base for the monks who lived on Skellig Michael, and from where it’s believed they launched their boats.

There appears to have been a presence at the site for many centuries, and the current structure at the site was once much larger.

Michéal O’Laighin, a tour guide at the trail, explained that Skellig Michael was abandoned around the 13th century, as a change in climate brought more storms and colder conditions to the exposed site.

Michael0 Michéal O'Laighin

The monks then set up shop permanently here.

This is a clear and simple link to the Skellig Michael and to Star Wars for any tourists who are in the market for this. Other spots like this are popping up across Kerry, where connection to the film allows, and even to the extent that a Star Wars festival is now taking place in Ballyferriter.

Organiser Breege Granville recently told this website about her thinking behind it:

Last August we realised that we needed to take control of it because it was a major thing that was happening to us. We needed to plan ahead so we could actually host it, rather than it taking over. So we could do it in our style.
We have to fit it in such a way that we’re hosting people at a rate that we can cope with. To take ownership of it. We won’t allow it change ourselves. We have a lifestyle down here. We wouldn’t live on the west coast of Ireland, where there’s so little employment, only for we enjoy it.
There’s a special breed of people that have always been raised back west.

Although Stars Wars-connected events can be effective, Granville hits on the need to not let it dominate Kerry; it could easily get out of hand and leave the county looking like a Star Wars theme park.

Many small businesses will be looking at this eagerly as a quick and straightforward way of raising their profile. It’s not an easy county in which to run any kind of business that isn’t connected to tourism – it’s rural, it’s isolated, and people will need a big draw to visit rural spots.

Despite, one business we spoke to is booming, despite it being tucked away in the middle of a rural bay.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Skelligs Chocolate Factory is, as the name suggests, a chocolate factory overlooking the Skelligs.

By late 2017, it had attracted 75,000 visitors. It aims to teach visitors about the production and creative process behind the chocolate they make.

Its open-plan layout show workers crafting ornate pieces and tending to large swirling vats of chocolate. Visitors are treated to a small tasting of freshly-made chocolate.

“For a very rural location, ‘build it, and build it right, and they will come’, is definitely true,” owner Colm Healy says.

He says the factory really came into its own from tragic circumstances – in 2010, after some recent refurbishment, the site burnt to the ground.

“At the time, it was a horrendous dark year,” he said, “Now, it’s the best thing that happened.”

It gave us the opportunity to really take a chance on this place, so it was before the Wild Atlantic Way came along, before any of the craic with Star Wars, and we decided we would take a punt on it.

Healy’s business is one which has positioned itself well, marketing itself not just as a chocolate factory but as a destination for anyone in the area.

His is one of many that could – and already has – benefited from Star Wars without having a direct connection.

This effect is not going to be short-lived, according to a man with a keen sense of where Kerry is going.

Mike O’Shea, from Dingle, was so heavily involved in filming that you’ll spot his name in the credits of The Force Awakens.

He is an adventurer and public speaker who has travelled the world over who was tasked with keeping cast and crew safe on Skellig Michael, and figuring out the logistics of transporting delicate filming equipment to locations inaccessible by normal forms of transport.

Mike0 Mike O'Shea Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

He had worked on smaller films, but nothing of this scale – “There’s so many people involved, its phenomenal.”

He sees a very clear direction for Kerry, and for Skellig Michael – he dismisses any fears that it will become overrun and ruined by tourism as “unfounded”, given the high level of protection already afforded to the island.

He predicts it will last for years.

“I think it’s about looking about looking at how we crate other entertainment or other activities around it,” O’Shea said.

“Or encourage people, ‘Yes, you can come and see Skellig, but can also go and do all these other things that aren’t related to the film but are in the area’.”

All along the west coast of Ireland, farming is gone, construction is pretty much gone, it has been discriminated and it’s coming back phenomenally slowly. You see what’s going on in Dublin, but down here, people are still pinched.
I think we need things like [Star Wars] to generate tourism, that’s where the future is for the west coast of Ireland, and that’s something we need to support and to drive.
I think it’s going to be a legacy for 30 or 40 years.

At the start of 2018, Kerry is now facing directly at what could be a changed future. The Last Jedi is one of just 32 films to have reached the dizzying revenue goal of one billion dollars after it premiere in the middle of last month.

It hasn’t even hit screens in China yet.

If the surge in tourism fails to materialise, Kerry will be left disappointed. However, it looks unlikely its tourism infrastructure will not be very firmly put to the test during the busy summer months this year.

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Nicky Ryan

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