From tiny Irish island to tourist hotspot
When "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" premiered in Dublin, the room broke out in applause at the sight of the Irish island Skellig Michael. During an important film scene the audience is taken to an isolated, mystical island that rises majestically from the blue sea. But this island isn't on some galaxy far, far away.The island Skellig Michaelis very real. You don't need a spaceship to get there, you just need a boat to cross the
choppy seven miles of open sea off the southwest tip of Ireland. The island is a UNESCO World Heritage site that hosts the remains of a sixth century Christian monastery.
The site has long been a reufge where people went to connect with God. When you land, you are greeted by Bob Harris, a local tourist guide. He will tell you all about a small group of adventurous, deeply religiou Christian monks who founded the monastery there. Generations of monks stayed there for over 600 years.
They ate birds' eggs and dried fish, they grew vegetables, kept a few sheep and goats for milk and may have received an occasional bag of grain from the mainland.
They would go down the steps to the sea early every morning and fish for their first meal. They would spend most of the day praying in the church, tending to their gardens and studying. Their huts, which were round on the outside and rectangular on the inside, were carefully built so that no drop of rain ever entered between the stones. To this day the monks' huts,
chapel, and graveyard have remained almost exactly the same.
"The magical thing to me is the fact when you look into these dark huts and doorways today you feel exactly what 6th-century men might have felt," Harris said.
However, Skellig Michale has not been such a popular tourist attraction over the centuries because it's hard to get there from the mainland. That will change now because of the movie connection. Gerard Keith, owner
of the Lighthouse Guesthouse in Portmagee on the mainland across from Skellig Michale, said, "The movie is generating an enormous amount of interest and bookings - we will have people coming from across the world this summer, from Australia to Americ."
Brenda Thompson, an official from Tourist Ireland said, "Tourist numbers are rising in Ireland because of the fall of the euro against the dollar. That's the reason why trips to Ireland from North America have risen about 15 percent compared to the same period last
This increase in the number of visitors is good for the Irish economy. The problem is that the expectation has been created that people will be able to reach the island. "We cannot allow too many tourists on such a tiny place - just 180 a day - and so a lot of them will be disappointed", added Gerard Keith. "the boat tours are already more or less sold out for the short May-to-September season." He complained that these
restrictions had already cost him and his colleagues 1.8 million pound in possible earnings. "That's why we are asking for a longer visiting season for Skellig Michael: from April to the beginning of November."
Not everybody is delighted with the idea of ferrying more tourists onto the island. Conservationist Claire O'Halloran complains that Skellig Michael's ecological treasures are being endangered by an agrressive marketing campaign advertising the island. She points out that the eco-system on the island is "extremely
fragile" and that it needs a recreational break from the tourists. "These advertisements for the famous Hollywood movie are the biggest threats the island has faced in the last century."
One of the major worries among ecologists is the negative effect on protected bird species such as puffins. An increasing number of boats might accidentally bring rats onto the island, which would endanger birds and their chicks.
In view of these concerns, Tourism Ireland wants to limit the number of visitors. Many tour operators are
now changing their programmes to give visitors a flavour of this rocky island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean even if they cannot set foot on it.
Several boat operators are offering boat trips which also take visitors to places where they get a good chance of watching dolphins and whales. "Others provide a number of bus tours that take people out to the Ring of Kerry where on a cloud-free day they can see Skellig Island", said Brenda Thompson. "So although many tourists are not allowed onto the island itself
they are able to get near this mystical place in the Atlantic Ocean."