Rathlin Island will still very much be open for business, is the defiant cry ahead of the 2014 tourism season.
That is the pledge from islanders and local councillors concerned at the potential impact of the temporary closure this year of one of the island’s leading attractions.
The Rathlin West Lighthouse and its seabird centre is being upgraded at a cost of around half a million Euro and the developers say that because of health and safety concerns while work is ongoing the viewing platforms will not open as normal this Easter.
The centre is not due to open again until March 2015 but the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) say the hope is that any short term pain will be mitigated by a long term gain.
Currently 12,500 visitors a year visit the bird sanctuary which is home to some of the biggest colonies of birds in Northern Ireland.
But Peter Harper of the RSPB says that with improved facilities - which could include catering - the hope is that 20,000 visitors a year will flock to the West Lighthouse which will be then be fully opened up for visitors.
He said the Comissioners of Irish Lights (CIL), who own the lighthouse, are opening up a lighthouse trail across Ireland and the associated publicity is certain to boost the number of visitors to Rathlin in the long run.
Mr Harper said the visitor season at the West Lighthouse normally runs from March to the end of August but he says the RSPB have other attractions on Rathlin and events will continue to be held there during 2014.
Regarding the refurbished facilities, Mr Harper told the Ballymoney & Moyle Times: “In the long run this can only be good for the island including the shops but the downside is that this year we will have to close. We could not open during construction and although there will be a knock-on in the short term it will be better in the long term.
“Overall we believe this is a good news story for Rathlin and we are totally committed to reopening in 2015 and would like to get 20,000 visitors a year.”
However, locals on Rathlin are concerned about the financial impact on the island this year.
And Cllr Joan Baird (Ulster Unionist) raised the matter at a meeting of Moyle Council in Ballycastle on Monday January 13.
She wondered if the refurbishment could be carried out in such a way that visitors could still visit the West Lighthouse perhaps with a temporary visitor building in place.
Peter Harper told the Times such temporary developments were not likely to be practical during building work.
Cllr Baird asked Moyle Council to write to the RSPB and CIL as well as ministers on both sides of the border.
Moyle Council Chairperson, Cllr Cara McShane (Sinn Fein), said there is still much to promote on Rathlin and they should do as much as they can to negate the impact of the West Lighthouse closure.
The Commissioners of Irish Lights issued the following statement: “The Commissioners of Irish Lights has been in correspondence with RDCA (Rathlin Develoment group) since early December and has invited RDCA representatives to meet in January to discuss community concerns about the lighthouse project.
“ RSPB met with RDCA in early December after which it agreed with CIL to hold further discussions with RDCA and relevant tourism and development agencies. The purpose of these discussions is to determine how best to develop the new visitor facility in line with statutory rules & regulations while at the same time avoiding negative impacts on tourism business to Rathlin during 2014”.
Michael Cecil from the Rathlin Development and Community Association (RDCA) said the decision to close without an alternative in place has come as a surprise.
“Obviously we are concerned that it will impact on island life, so we are spending the next few weeks getting various agencies around the table trying to put some mitigation in place - we want to make it very clear that Rathlin remains open.”
Island representatives have requested a meeting with CIL, RSPB and other government agencies to explore possible alternative viewing areas.
Mr Cecil said the RDCA and island businesses are working hard to find ways of filling the gap left by the closure of the seabird centre.
“Existing businesses will be doing as much as they can to facilitate tourists.
“There are about 20 miles of public walks on the island, there is lots of natural scenery and beauty, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency are a major landowner at the site, we are hoping they will step up and open some of their land so that people can still have access to the bird cliffs,” said Mr Cecil.