Films Shot in Fragile Places: Creating Conservationists or Eroding the Environment?

Candice Gaukel Andrews May 31, 2016 5
On Skellig Michael, the beehive cells where the monks lived date from more than one period and reflect the development of drystone construction during the early medieval period. ©Arian Zwegers, flickr

On Skellig Michael, the beehive cells where the monks lived date from more than one era and reflect the development of drystone construction during the early medieval period. ©Arian Zwegers, flickr

It’s the day after Memorial Day, the unofficial start of the summer season. While the summer solstice is still a ways off—June 20—after Memorial Day, vacations start and movie production companies bring out what they hope will be their “summer blockbusters.”

When a movie does wind up as a blockbuster, garnering a huge box office and popularity throughout the world, what happens to the locations in which they were shot, especially if those places happen to be fragile areas?

Skellig Michael, an Irish island in the Atlantic, is a case in point. After being featured in the 2015 film Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this UNESCO World Heritage site is being mobbed by Jedi fans.

Will their interest in the island foster future environmental advocates, or will it cause irreparable harm to Skellig Michael’s flora, fauna and cultural history?

A film’s financial footprints 

In the monks’ graveyard stand more than 100 roughly shaped, stone crosses of varying sizes. Some have plain, incised decorations. ©GGzeOuf, flickr

In the monks’ graveyard stand more than 100 roughly shaped, stone crosses of varying sizes. Some have plain, incised decorations. ©GGzeOuf, flickr

Skellig Michael, an island about seven miles off the coast of southwest Ireland, is the scene for the final act of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The next film in the series will also be partially shot on the island.

The top of a 400-million-year-old sandstone mountain, Skellig Michael’s tourist traffic over the centuries has been limited because it’s hard to reach from the mainland. Built by monks between the sixth and eighth centuries, it has been stuck in time for more than 1,000 years. Boats can only go there between May and October. Once you do manage to get transport to the island, to get to the six beehive-shaped monastic cells, two boat-shaped oratories, cemetery and the ruins of a medieval church, you have to climb more than 600 roughly cut, steep, stone steps. It’s definitely a treacherous place: in 2009, two American tourists fell to their deaths here.

Today, Skellig Michael is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site but also a national monument of Ireland and a special protection area for birdlife. Tens of thousands of birds, mainly gannets and puffins, raise their families here.

Tourism Ireland hopes that the movie will bring more tourists to Skellig Michael. It has launched a video it plans to share in 14 markets: Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Gulf Cooperation Council, India, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Nordic region, South Africa, Spain and the United States. Tourism Minister Paschal Donohoe has said that he hopes the film will bring the dramatic scenery of County Kerry and the broader “Wild Atlantic Way” to an audience of potentially hundreds of millions of people. He hopes that encouraging them to see such special and protected places will inspire them to want to safeguard them into the future.

Thousands of Atlantic puffins call Skellig Michael home—at least for part of the year. The seabirds spend their summers on the island, breeding and fattening their chicks on sand eels and sprat. ©Maureen, flickr

Thousands of Atlantic puffins call Skellig Michael home—at least for part of the year. The seabirds spend their summers on the island, breeding and fattening their chicks on sand eels and sprat. ©Maureen, flickr

It seems the plan has worked—at least as far as interesting people into making a visit. By the end of November 2015, Skellig Michael had surpassed its best-ever year on record for the number of overseas tourists. According to the Irish Film Board, one in five said their decision to come to Ireland was influenced by a film. The total annual earnings of the Irish tourism industry exceeded $7 billion for the first time last year.

The Irish TV and film sector is worth about $600 million to the country’s economy, and it creates about 6,000 local jobs. Residents are already being deluged with inquiries from Star Wars fans looking to stay in Portmagee, the village that hosted the film’s crew during shooting.

Real estate’s rare residents

Despite the tourism benefits, when filming began on Skellig Michael in August 2014, environmentalists objected that the site could be put at risk during the shoot and afterward, as the place got to be more popular. They worried that the island’s fragile environment and bird populations would be permanently damaged.

Visitor numbers are limited to about 15,000 a year to the island itself. Others can opt for boat trips around Skellig Michael. ©Don Richards, flickr

Visitor numbers are limited to about 15,000 a year on the island itself. Others can opt for boat trips around Skellig Michael. ©Don Richards, flickr

It’s easy to think that an island made of rock that has been there for millions of years couldn’t possibly be hurt by a bit of temporary filming or some added tourists. But Skellig Michael isn’t just a rock—it’s a vibrant ecosystem inhabited by puffins, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels precisely because it is so remote and protected. In the past, we’ve seen that when large groups of people are inspired to visit a place all at once, bad things can happen. And once a movie becomes a pop culture hit, it’s far more tempting to take away a small souvenir, such as a rock or a stone chipped from a monk’s beehive cell. Multiply that inclination by the thousands, and the impact is great.

While I think films that encourage young people, especially, to go out and see the world are generally a good idea, I find myself hoping that Skellig Michael won’t have to endure too many new “guests.” Quiet and solitude need a place in our world to reside, too, and I think Skellig Michael might just be the best, suitable real estate for them.

Do you think blockbuster films that inspire travels can create environmental advocates, or are they more likely to cause the demise of our most fragile places?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

5 Comments »

  1. Hanlie Winterbach June 15, 2016 at 10:42 am - Reply

    The same happened when a film was shot in the desert in Namibia.

  2. Thomas Nesler June 5, 2016 at 10:43 am - Reply

    By definition, a fragile area can be used very lightly at best, and certainly not for anything as irrelevant as a film. Corporate industry thinks that they can mitigate any impact with enough money. We do not know enough about fragile ecosystems or pristine environments to pay for their restoration to original condition and function. Too many government officials accept damage or depletion to natural resources and environments if they or their government are “compensated” for the damage. The damage remains but the treasury looks better. Restoration may be accomplished, but we cannot regain what was lost.

  3. Josh Whyte June 5, 2016 at 10:42 am - Reply

    A pre arranged percentage of takings from the film(s) should be alloted to protection of the environmemtally sensitive areas they utilise.

  4. Ramakrishna Venkatasamy June 5, 2016 at 10:41 am - Reply

    Sometimes I wonder whether tourists have not become, unwillingly maybe, the strongest of the forces of destruction on this planet.

  5. Joan May 31, 2016 at 7:17 am - Reply

    It seems to me that Ireland has the power to manage this issue for good or ill. A few years ago I was on an “expedition cruise” that visited Skellig Michael in May. We were told that conditions were rarely good enough to permit landing at that time of year, and our intention was merely a close sail-by, in order to view the bird life and the ruins. However, we had surprisingly calm seas and a landing would have been very feasible – BUT there was no warden on the island at that time, and landings were not permitted without a warden present. Disappointing for us, of course, but clearly understandable, given the small size and fragile nature of the site.

    If this is still the regulation in effect, Ireland ought to be able to limit the number and frequency of visitors pretty easily, perhaps putting a reservation system in effect and/or requiring visitors to be accompanied by specially trained guides, with fees set accordingly.

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