A local MLA has warned that The Gobbins Cliff Path risks becoming “the butt of jokes” due to frequent closures in its first year of operation.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council opened the £7.5 million attraction to fanfare last August, but was forced to close it after five months when a landslip caused by high levels of rainfall caused damage to parts of the access path.
The path subsequently reopened over the 2016 May Day weekend, but closed again on June 20 for essential maintenance to prevent rock falls.
At the time, the council hoped that the attraction would reopen in two to three weeks, but it remains closed.
This means that the Gobbins cliff path has only been accessible to the public for six of the 11 months since it first opened.
Sinn Fein MLA Oliver McMullan said he would be writing to the tourism minister to voice his concerns on the frequent closures.
“At this rate, the Gobbins Cliff Path will be closed for longer than it has been open,” he stated.
“We are nearly through the summer season. We can’t go on promoting it if it’s not open.
“If tour operators bring people and it’s not open, they won’t come back. People will be putting their tourist brochures for next year together now and we need to make sure it will be open.
“It’s the cost in lost revenue and the fact that wages still have to be paid as the visitors’ centre remains open. If rate payers are paying for this, someone needs to step in and say enough is enough.
“They need to tell us exactly what’s going on and when they think it’s going to reopen.”
The East Antrim Assembly member queried the cost of the current scaling exercise to remove loose rocks and debris at the Gobbins cliff face, and whether it would need to be done regularly.
“A lot of money has been invested and we need to make sure we see a return on that investment,” he added.
DUP MLA Gordon Lyons said he was “concerned” that the Gobbins remains closed during what should have been its first full summer season.
“It’s disappointing that it’s almost August and it hasn’t re-opened,” he said.
“I think it would be better not to take bookings until there is a firm date for reopening as it’s frustrating for people to have bookings cancelled. I have no doubt that when it reopens its reputation will really take off. The best thing that can happen is a firm date for reopening.”
A council spokesman said there is “no firm date for re-opening The Gobbins as yet.”
“The scaling process is progressing well, but due to the unpredictable nature of the work it is difficult to give a precise timetable for completion,” he added. The spokesman also revealed that “routine scaling of the cliff face will be required on a regular basis”.
When asked how much the Gobbins costs council to maintain each week it is closed, the spokesman replied: “The visitor centre is a multi-purpose building and the café, shop, community centre and exhibition area remain open, so are not being ‘maintained’. They are open as normal–only the tours are suspended. Guides are casual employees and therefore no ongoing cost is incurred on days when tours do not operate.”
A spokesperson from Rumour Mill PR, which the council hired for the Gobbins project, stated: “The Gobbins’ break-even period for revenue was for three years dependent on visitor numbers. However, as the project has changed since the original evaluation, it is no longer valid.”
The spokesperson said tours can still be booked in advance, with full refunds if the closure period is extended.