Video: Gobbins cliff path opens for business again as troubled site faces huge repairs bill
A troubled Co Antrim tourist attraction - The Gobbins Cliff Path - will reopen tomorrow for its first full summer season since its relaunch three years ago.
The £7.5m landmark, originally designed by Edwardian engineer Berkeley Deane Wise, had previously been accessible to visitors for only eight of the 32 months since it reopened in August 2015.
The spectacular two kilometre coastal walk was forced to close twice for repairs due to storm damage and for maintenance to prevent rock falls.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has budgeted a total of around £2m for repair work - meaning that the end bill for the attraction could reach £9.5m.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that the cost of repairs had reached around £800,000 by last June.
From tomorrow, the majority of the path will reopen until October, with the exception of a small section at Sandy Cave, which owner Mid and East Antrim Borough Council said "requires some further remedial works".
Billed as "the most dramatic walk in Europe", visitors will be able to enjoy a guided tour along dramatic coastal terrain, which includes cliff-hugging tubular and suspension bridges.
The Area of Special Scientific Interest is also home to an abundance of wildlife, and on a visit yesterday The Belfast Telegraph was able to glimpse seabirds such as kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots.
Tour guides say that lucky visitors may even be able to spot puffins and dolphins.
Operations manager Alister Bell said he was "very pleased" to open the attraction for its first full summer season, and hoped to welcome 45,000-50,000 visitors this year.
"People say you can't really paint a picture of The Gobbins until you actually come down and do the walk yourself," he said.
"So for us it will be great to have a prolonged period of opening so that we can show people the wonder that is the Gobbins.
"I think the reputational damage will change.
"Our online booking has been open a month, and this weekend and the bank holiday weekend are nearly filled up, with weekends heading towards the summer filling up as well. We've a number of tour operators coming in; it's really nice to see the buzz around the centre.
"Last year, in July and August we had over 7,680 visitors and over 45% of those came from outside Northern Ireland, so there is international appeal."
Alister said previous closures were aimed at safeguarding visitors.
"This is a natural environment," he continued.
"All across the Antrim coast there are slippages and rock falls.
"We treat health and safety here as paramount for visitors and staff.
"That's why we took the measures to close when we did; we've carried out investigations.
"You will never be 100% away from rock fall, but we've tried to manage that in the best way we have, and we give information out to the public to allow them to make that considered judgment as to whether they wish to come or not.
"Rest assured that Mid and East Antrim have done all within their power within the natural environment to carry out their surveys."
The Gobbins will close again in November and December to undertake surveys of the landscape and any necessary work.
From next year, it is planned to keep the cliff path open from January until the end of October.
A spokesperson for Mid and East Antrim Borough Council said it had "worked within" its £2m budget while undertaking repairs to date.
When asked about the anticipated end bill for repairs, they replied: "The current and ongoing contract of works is subject to commercial confidentiality.
"Council are undertaking the Phase II remedial works and do not anticipate any further impact on the ratepayer."
The spokesperson added that the previous closures had "not stifled huge interest from around the globe" and that bookings to date "indicate continued high demand".