A tiny rock in the middle of the vast South Atlantic, the island of St. Helena is one that normally eludes the tourist. One of the most isolated islands in the world it is 1700 miles from Cape Town, 1100 miles from the closest coast of Africa and 2000 miles from South America. It is no wonder it was chosen by Britain as the spot for Napoleon’s final exile. Putting aside the drama of the island’s remote locale it is beautiful. Its rocky coast hides an interior lush with flora and fauna; every bend of the road reveals another breathtaking vista. It is home to many resident and migratory birds including some that are unique to the island. Visitors are surprised by waterfalls and grottos; volcanic cones and sandy beaches. Within an hour’s drive you can experience six distinct micro-climates. All this along with some of the most poignant landmarks in Western history makes St. Helena one of the best kept secrets on the planet. Why?The answer is simple; you can’t get there. Well, obviously, you can – but it’s not easy. Unless you arrive by your own boat the only regularly scheduled transportation is via the mail boat from Cape Town – the RMS St. Helena. She is one of only two Royal Mail Ships left in service and her days are dwindling. Making calls on Tristan de Cunha and Ascension Islands, the St. Helena calls on St. Helena once a month. One cannot be in a hurry to get on or off the island which precludes it as a destination for impromptu getaways.
Without a steady stream of visitors the hospitality infrastructure of the capital Jamestown has not grown since the 1800’s; it still supports the same handful of inn-like hotels that hosted guests like the Duke of Wellington. A deep water harbor, Jamestown can accommodate cruise ships but as there is no pier they must anchor. Still their few and infrequent calls are not enough to stimulate the growth of this charming island. With no prospects for the future many of the island’s youth seek employment in South Africa. Of the published 6,000 people who live on the island only 3,800 are actual year round residents. So what to do?
For years the only answer has been to construct an airport. The plateau of the island is large enough for an airstrip to accommodate a limited number of short haul flights from Cape Town. The increase in access would be good for the islanders and the economy. Transport between Cape Town schools, hospitals and industry would increase. Arrivals would increase. Infrastructure would increase. Jobs would increase. Talk of an airport has been bantered about for years but no one has stepped up to the plate to fund the project until now. A group of strategic property advisors from the United Kingdom have agreed to help fund the project along with a proposed resort complex modeled in part after Prince Charles’ successful Eden Project. Visitors would be treated to world-class facilities including golf, tennis, pool, health club, spa and miles of pristine nature trails with accredited experts in ecotourism. The resort would be supported by its own farms producing organic produce in a sustainable manner. Local efforts to support the growth of the private sector on the island have been started by the St. Helena Development Agency (http://www.shda.helanta.sh), a key facilitator for international investment and projects for the island established in 1995. Jamestown is undergoing massive transformation; buildings are being restored, old warehouses along the sea wall are being renovated, shops and cafes are opening and the eroding cliff sides are being stabilized.
To oversee the island’s leap into the 21st century a new Governor General has been appointed. After his tenor on the Falkland Islands where he successfully completed the expansion of the airport in Stanley, His Excellency Andrew Gurr was called out of retirement to work his magic on St. Helena. However, all is not rosy. There are factions within the community that oppose the airport and the changes it will bring; waste management, traffic, energy needs, higher prices, etc. And then there is the British government which on December the 12th, 2008, voted to ‘pause” negotiations on the airport causing this reaction as noted in statement posted on St. Helena’s official website
“His Excellency, Andrew Gurr, Governor of St Helena, has expressed the deep dismay of the people of St Helena at today’s announcement by the British Government that negotiations over the contract constructing an airport on the Island are to be delayed. Describing the statement as “a severe set-back to the future development of St Helena and the Islanders’ hopes of reducing their dependency on the UK”, Mr Gurr said: “The construction of the airport is vital to stimulate economic development and reverse the decline in population. At present there is only limited access to St Helena by sea. An airport would bring about an unprecedented stimulus to the island and its inhabitants. The potential for tourism is significant and the project would benefit the British public, who are currently supporting St Helena through their taxes and the people of St Helena in their quest for greater self-sufficiency. I very much hope an affirmative decision will not be long delayed.”
“Saints” as the islanders are called, point out if the government does not come through there may not be an airport. If there is no airport, Gurr may not stay on Governor General. However, if the British government pulls out its support, the French have hinted they may fund the airport project. After all, this is the only place where the French flag flies over three small parcels of land on British soil – Napoleon’s house at Longwood, Napoleon’s first home at The Briar’s and Napoleon’s original tomb. Foreign visitors come to St. Helena to see these landmarks to the French ruler – who better to benefit from the increased traffic than the French? Were this to happen many fear the inevitable takeover of the island by the French; all the more impetus for the British to move forward with the airport project.
St. Helena offers so much for the visitor a short call by a cruise ship does not afford enough time. However, until an airport is built cruise ships and the mail boat are the only way a visitor can make land fall. St. Helena is a delightful stop and worth the effort. Surely an airport will be evitable however until then the island remains one of the few true secrets spots left on the planet.