Council defends sending team of six on rates-funded trip to US in bid to promote Gobbins
A council team is heading to the United States to promote The Gobbins - even though the revamped cliffside path has been closed for more than half of its first year.
Five councillors and an official from Mid and East Antrim Council fly out to the Irish Festival in Milwaukee this weekend in a bid to market the tourist attraction.
Yet, as revealed in the Belfast Telegraph, the spectacular Edwardian walkway has been closed for two lengthy periods since it reopened last September after lying derelict for years, and has missed out on the summer season.
The TaxPayers' Alliance has hit out at the stateside trip - the second year in a row the council has attended the event.
"When money is still tight, local ratepayers will be furious that the council continues to fly staff over to America for what could be seen as little more than a jolly," a spokesman said.
"The Milwaukee Irish Festival is a predominantly entertainment-focused event, not a tourism trade fair.
"By sanctioning these ratepayer-funded trips, council bosses are testing the trust in which ratepayers give over their cash and it's vital that every trip abroad is carefully considered before signing it off."
Local DUP councillor Billy Ashe (below), chairman of the committee that voted to go to Wisconsin, said: "We have more in the Mid and East Antrim area to promote than just The Gobbins.
"If we don't promote it, nobody else will."
And his DUP colleague William McCaughey said: "Certainly there have been problems with The Gobbins - unforeseen problems - but we will resolve those and we need to get out and promote this.
"The Milwaukee event has visitors from every corner of the United States.
"It is also important for the council that we retain the identity of Mid and East Antrim rather than getting lost in the plethora of attractions that Tourism Ireland will be there to promote."
Their assurances came as a Sinn Fein MLA demanded a full report on the finances of the project from Economy Minister Simon Hamilton, and a debate in the Assembly.
Oliver McMullan said: "The Gobbins have been closed for most of the season and council cannot tell when it is fit to be open again.
"It needs 75,000 people per year to break even, so far this year it has had only 22,000.
"Funding of £2.5m came through DETI, and the South's Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport contributed £1m.
"Both those Government departments committed £3.5m under the EU Interreg programme. Larne Council provided additional funding of £2m, along with £0.2m from Ulster Garden Villages.
"The complete funding package could come to around £7m."
He said the report should include the running costs and the costs incurred due to the closures in 2015-16, as well as the costs of any structural works needed for health and safety reasons.
Just over half the initial visitors to The Gobbins were from abroad, in particular the United States.
Apart from the current summer season, the historic path was also closed from January through Easter - its two most important periods for attracting tourists.