Giant's Causeway parking 'rip-off' say politicians
Politicians have accused the National Trust of "ripping-off" the public over the prices it is charging for car parking at the Giant's Causeway.
Before the trust's new visitors' centre opened last year, it cost about £6 to use the main car park at Northern Ireland's premier tourist attraction.
But an entry fee for the centre has since been included in parking costs.
Visitors going by car to the beauty spot are now charged £8.50 per adult, whether or not they visit the centre.
'Fleecing the public'
Under the current prices, the cost of parking a car with five adults in the main car park at the Giant's Causeway is £42.50.
Children are admitted to the centre at half the adult fee and a family ticket costs £21.
DUP MLA for North Antrim Mervyn Storey said: "I think it is driving local people away. They (the public) do not want to be having exorbitant charges per person to park their cars to go and see a natural beauty that we should all be proud of, and should not be a means of fleecing the public to facilitate any organisation."
Ballymena SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan recently brought a party of eight, travelling in two cars, to the causeway. He faced a demand for £55 to park the two vehicles - his group did not want to visit the centre on that occasion.
He said: "It seems to me that was a very steep charge. I very cheerfully wanted to pay for the car parking and was very happy to do that."
But he was told he could not pay for parking only. After a conversation with an attendant, he left without paying anything.
Mr O'Loan said there should be a separate charge for car parking for those who do not wish to visit the centre.
"To me, it does seem like sharp practice. There should not be issues of people having to attempt to park off-site," he said.
'World class facility'
However, the trust has defended its pricing policy, saying the £8.50 per adult charge had been benchmarked against the cost of visiting other international tourist attractions.
Billy Reid, deputy director of the National Trust in Northern Ireland, said: "We were charged with opening a world class facility, giving a world class experience, which would give a total experience of the Giant's Causeway. Now, that costs money.
"We need to make it pay for itself, but in terms of a 'rip-off' or lining somebody's pockets - the National Trust is a charity, this isn't money going into fat cats' pockets.
"We're trying to actually make enough money to run the site as it needs to be run - as a world class facility."
Mr Reid said car parking was "part of the facilities we offer" at the causeway and he pointed out that those not travelling by car could "walk on site for free".
Charges only apply when visitors use the main car park or enter the visitors' centre.
Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster, the deputy director also confirmed that the new centre has not "made money" in its first year.
Mr Reid added that the National Trust operates at a loss in Northern Ireland, spending much more on looking after "special places" on behalf of the public than it receives in fees and charges.
In a statement, the trust said more than 440,000 people have visited the new Giant's Causeway interpretive centre since it opened last July.
"We have been pleased with the positive feedback from our visitors, with comment cards at the centre recording hundreds of comments in April, of which 98.7% were positive," it added.
Last August, the trust said it would look at concerns raised about signage at the Giant's Causeway, to ensure members of the public knew they could access the stones at the site for free.
Mr Reid confirmed that signage changes had been made as a result of the concerns. He added that the trust has no current plans to reduce its car parking charges.
National Trust members can both park at the site and enter the visitors' centre for free.
The Giant's Causeway is a Unesco World Heritage Site and features more than 40,000 interlocking basalt columns.
The interpretative centre at the site cost a total of £18.5m to develop and the National Trust provided just over one third of the funding.
Stormont's Department of Enterprise Trade & Investment, through the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, paid £9.25m, of which £6.13m came from the EU.
The Heritage Lottery Fund paid £3m towards the building.