St Helena’s airport is confirmed – is it a blessing?

By Catherine Leech, Director, 101 Holidays

As St Helena is finally assured by the British Government that the much-talked-of airport is to become a reality, I can’t help but reflect on and consider the impact on this exquisite but remote gem of an island.

When I was fortunate enough to visit St Helena in September 2009, I met a family who told me about the realities of life there.

Several years before, their young daughter lay critically ill in St Helena’s hospital with a severe abdominal infection following an accident. The hospital had tried three of the 4 antibiotics they had in stock (on the entire island) but her condition was worsening. The RMS St Helena, the island’s sole means of access, was about to set sail for Cape Town – a 6 day journey.

They had to make a swift but unenviable decision – to risk the 4th antibiotic not working and her probable death or a 6 day voyage in the ship’s hospital in order to reach a better-equipped hospital in Cape Town.

The outcome was a happy one – they opted to stay and their daughter responded to the 4th antibiotic.

No other story so clearly outlined to me the sometimes harsh reality of living on one of the planet’s most remote islands without air access, something that we so easily take for granted.

For the 4,000 or so St Helenians who live there, air access means not only the ability to travel more readily and access emergency support when needed, but it is also to serve as the catalyst to usher in a new era for tourism and other economic development.

I was there on behalf of DFID to prepare a five-year tourism development plan based on sea-borne tourism opportunities – this was at a time when the British Government had put on hold the airport decision, having previously given it the nod, and it’s fair to say that the mood on island was one of uncertainty, despair and anger. The population was dwindling as St Helenians left to find work opportunities elsewhere and the island’s astonishing, largely Georgian, built heritage was crumbling.

I had to tread carefully – I was there to look, listen, ask questions, assess and analyse in order to put a coherent and meaningful strategy together but the endless stream of consultants, advisors and experts over the years had rendered most of those whom I met deeply, and understandably, sceptical at best.

The pro-airport camp will be delighted by the latest decision. The long-term objective is to lessen the (considerable) financial burden on British tax payers by opening up the island for development and, ultimately, self-sustainability. The anti-camp will be fearful of the impact of ‘planeloads’ of tourists descending on their tiny island, developers being allowed to despoil the natural beauty of the place and the peaceful, gentle pace of life eroding.

My own conclusion, albeit after only 8 days on-island, is that St Helena has a heritage of international importance which could, if carefully managed, become a magnet for niche ‘high value, low volume’ tourism with knock-on benefits for the entire population – which in turn should regenerate as expat St Helenians return home to invest and work in their own country.

To quote from my report: “St Helena’s single key asset is her wealth and diversity of built and natural heritage within one remote 47 square mile island and country 1,200 miles from the nearest continental landmass….. To have such wealth in such a small space would be the envy of much of the rest of the world – entire tourism industries in many countries are built on far less.

“Consider batteries, forts and cannons, an intact Georgian working town, trading and military history, an authentic wealth of touch-it, feel-it Napoleonic heritage, historic country houses, slave graves, the Boer cemetery, endemic flora and fauna, scenery which includes cloud forest, desert, sculpted volcanic rocks, woodland and staggering coastal scenery – and possibly the world’s oldest living Giant Tortoise. All of this is underpinned by the genuine warmth, culture and charm of Saint Helenians.”

It is my firm view that, with improved access, a sustainable tourism industry which is entirely predicated on heritage can be successfully, and gradually, developed – but only if existing historic buildings are sensitively restored, the natural environment protected and new development by Saint Helenians and foreign investors is appropriately controlled within the heritage framework.

I keep abreast of development via the island’s only independent newspaper and I am in no doubt that the airport on St Helena could prove to be the catalyst for a sustainable future which could help preserve, restore and allow others to share in its matchless built and natural heritage.

However, whilst I am aware that steps are in place to ensure an investor-friendly infrastructure, I don’t underestimate the need for strict control (and local buy-in) especially when it comes to any new builds.

I hope to return one day to stay in one of St Helena’s many historic buildings, currently crumbling but with the potential to be restored as characterful hotels, inns and lodges to suit all budgets. The Consulate and Farm Lodge Country House Hotel are both examples of what can be done with the existing buildings.

What a special place – I have worked in travel for close to 30 years but nowhere has touched me in the way that St Helena and the St Helenian people have done. I only hope that the uniquely charming RMS St Helena, which triples up as a cruise ship, virtual ferry and cargo vessel, will not disappear. The voyage (I sailed from Cape Town to St Helena and then on to Ascension Island) is as much an ingredient of St Helena’s magical spell as the place itself.

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