Saint Helena ready for tourism takeoff with new air link

Islanders celebrate as isolated Saint Helena now reachable by plane

Cut off from the rest of the world for centuries, Saint Helena, which lies in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, is now reachable by plane for the first time.

The breakthrough promises to lift the British-run territory from obscurity and place it within reach of tourists, and the arrival of the first commercial flight was also a relief for islanders frustrated by a delay to the opening because of high winds.

After years of procrastination, London gave the green light in 2011 for a full runway on the island. The ambition was to put it within six hours of mainland Africa instead of the five days needed to make the ocean voyage from Cape Town.

British officials hoped that 30,000 tourists a year would visit the island, which is home to just 4,500 residents - known as "Saints".

But do not expect white sandy beaches and palm trees. Rather, the island is known as a paradise for hikers and divers, with dramatic scenery and its volcanic origins and boasting history as rich as its flora and fauna.

After an 18-month delay, the first commercial flight finally touched down on Oct 14.

Euphoria swept through the cabin as champagne was served and the island came into view. On the ground, islanders celebrated the arrival.

"It was a big relief when the airport finally opened. It has not been easy," said Mr Craig Yon, a manager of a hotel that opened in 2012.

But the island may never experience a tourism boom on the scale promised. For safety reasons, the passenger capacity of the aircraft serving the island is far smaller than planned.

And the weekly flight from Johannesburg will serve the island at a cost of £800 (S$1,430) return.


"South Africans prefer to go for three weeks in Thailand than go to Saint Helena," said a South African travel agent who organises trips to the island.

For this Christmas, Ms Hazel Wilmot, a hotelier in the capital Jamestown, has just five bookings so far.

Saint Helena tourism chief Helena Bennett now thinks the goal of 30,000 visitors is "unrealistic" - indeed, the small plane can bring fewer than 4,000 people, including residents, to the island each year.

Even today, the island has just 121 guest beds, including a new hotel funded by the local government. None of the properties have a website, while roads are so narrow that often only one car can pass.

But with the air link, the flow of tourists will at least be more constant.

"During the two-week period when the Royal Mail Ship is away, the island is dead," said Ms Bennett, referring to the passenger and cargo vessel that calls at the island.

"With the plane, we are going to have visitors every week." - AFP