The Marble Arch Caves celebrated its 35th anniversary last Friday, May 29, and although there were no tourists to celebrate the auspicious day, Caves Manager Kate McGrath is hoping it will not be long before they welcome people from all over to the world-renowned tourist attraction.

Since the caves opened in 1985, almost two million visitors from more than 100 countries across the world have visited the Marble Arch Caves to explore the stunning million-year-old cave network and admire its grandeur and splendour.

At just over seven miles long, the Marble Arch Caves is the longest cave network in Northern Ireland and the facility’s three boats have carried visitors for an aggregate of almost 35,000 miles across the Cave’s underground river.

The Marble Arch Caves descend to a depth of 94 metres below ground at its deepest point and were so named by local people who believed the caves to be made of marble, when in fact it is limestone.

Just over 12 months in the role, Kate was finding her feet and getting to know more and more about the caves when the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of the site.

Although there were no tourists, Kate said it was important to mark the 35th anniversary of the caves but for now it is about planning for the future.

“I guess in March we were ready to open again for the season and it was tough for all the team to step down in what was our 35th year,” explained Kate.

“But we have to get to grips with what Covid means and in the short term looking what we can do, how many numbers we can get through with safety and social distancing measures in place.

“So the hope would be we could open again as long as we are following the safety guidance and the Government on what we can do. And we hope get the visitor centre and some offers open again.”

The plan for Kate and staff is to look at what the caves and surrounding area has to offer.

“There is more to bring to the area to help and support that storytelling and bringing more experiences above the ground as well as below the ground.

“For us and with the nature and biodiversity it’s all about sustainable tourism and about doing those things to develop and grow, which is not to the detriment of local communities or the nature that we are protecting in the area.”

To mark the occasion the Chair of Fermanagh Omagh District Council, Councillor Siobhan Currie, joined Kate to cut a birthday cake at the Marble Arch Caves Visitor Centre; a marble sponge with drip icing and chards of chocolate to represent the stalagmites and stalactites, geological formations for which the caves are famous.

Speaking about the milestone, Councillor Currie said: “Over the past 35 years, Marble Arch Caves has made a significant contribution, not only to the preservation and promotion of the stunning geological formations at the caves, but also to the rich biodiversity of the surrounding geopark.

It also has been a significant driver in the economy of our district and is a major employer in the area.

“While the celebrations are more muted than they would have been under normal circumstances, I hope that we will be able to celebrate in the not too distant future, by welcoming visitors back to this wonderful facility to be entranced by the enthusiastic staff and the outstanding natural beauty of its location.”

Today, the Marble Arch Caves is the flagship site within the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, a UNESCO designation given only to areas of special geological importance. The facility is a four-star Tourism NI visitor attraction.

As well as welcoming 70,000 visitors a year to tour the caves, the venue has also hosted a diverse range of events from its incredibly popular Hallowe’en Spooktacular to orchestral performances and recitals.

Over the years, the Marble Arch Caves has continued to develop as an attraction launching a new website, in 2019 which facilitates online booking.

Despite the caves being closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, staff have been using social media channels to bring the Marble Arch Caves experience to the public interactively, including throwback videos and photographs through the years, interactive videos including how to grow your own cave formation and cave-related games and puzzles.