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?
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
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.
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.
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,