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Ukraine war blamed as Skellig Michael bookings slump

By Nick Bramhill

The Force appears to be fading on Skellig Michael, with the ongoing war in Ukraine cited as a factor behind a slump in bookings to the world-famous world heritage site.

The protected Co Kerry island, which has become a mecca for Star Wars fans in recent years, is due to open up to visitors on Sunday, May 15 for its first full season since 2019.

In pre-Covid times, most of the vessels licensed to land on the UNESCO world heritage site would be all but booked out ahead of the start of the Atlantic outpost’s restricted four-and-a-half month visiting season.

Read More: Irish island made famous by Star Wars is under attack by drones

However, boat operators have noted an “unusually quiet” start to the season, with some blaming the conflict in Ukraine for a sharp decline in interest from international tourists, particularly those from the US.

American tourists have shunned Ireland in the past during times of global strife, including the Gulf War in 1990 and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when inbound visitor numbers from the US nosedived by a fifth overnight.

And now Skellig Michael - one of many Co Kerry attractions heavily dependent on the big-spending US market - looks likely to experience a drop-off in visiting Americans.

Donal McCrohan, one of 15 boatmen granted licenses for the upcoming visitor season, said: “We’re definitely not at the levels we were used to seeing in pre-Covid times. There’s bookings coming in, but it’s a lot quieter than it was in the years before Covid.

“Americans usually book earlier in the season, but their numbers are particularly down, and I think that’s down to the war in Ukraine, which is making visitors from the US nervous about coming over to Europe.”

The breathtaking island, which was famously used as a filming location for two recent Star Wars blockbusters, was closed off for visitors for the whole of 2020 due to the pandemic.

But despite only opening up in July last year for a shorter visitor season, visitor numbers still hit an impressive 12,060 - 90 per cent of who were made up from the domestic market.

McCrohan, a Portmagee-based boatman of 30 years, continued: “Another reason for things being slower is that many Irish are going abroad this year, instead of holidaying at home.

“I think inflation and the rising costs families are facing are also playing a part, too.”

Paul Devane, who like the other licensed boat operators can only land 12 passengers a day on the island, admitted it wasn’t just tourist numbers he was concerned about.

“We’ve a short season - 100 days, maybe 90 days if we’re lucky. The weather is a big factor in these parts, because there’s always days when we can’t get out there,” he said.

Gerard Kennedy, who runs the popular Moorings Guesthouse and Bridge Bar in Portmagee, the Kerry coastal village from where most Skellig-bound boats depart, said: “I think there might be a perception out there that it’s impossible to get a boat to Skellig Michael, because they’re all booked out. That might have been the case in previous years ahead of the season, but it’s not the case this time.”

He added: “We want to get the message out there that there’s plenty of space available on the boats this year and we’re ready to welcome visitors back to this beautiful corner of Kerry.”

In a statement, the OPW confirmed that Skellig Michael will open to visitors tomorrow [May 15]. Landings will be allowed to continue up to October 1, weather permitting.

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