Destinations

St Helena on brink of tourist invasion

Jean Liou - AFP

The tiny South Atlantic island of Saint Helena – where Napoleon died in exile – dreams of becoming a tourist draw when its first airport opens next year despite fears it cannot accommodate an influx of visitors.

For years only accessible by boat, St Helena has just one bank, no cash machine and no mobile telephone reception.

Sailing out to St Helena from Cape Town every three weeks, the boat journey takes five long days. Because the island is so remote, only 1,500 tourists visit each year.

But the tourism office hopes the weekly 4.5-hour passenger flights scheduled to start from Johannesburg in February 2016 will change that – and the island’s economy – forever.

Its director Cathy Alberts says she expects 30,000 tourists a year, and hopes that the change will help St Helena become self-sufficient.

Perched in the Atlantic half-way between Africa and South America, the island relies on Britain for most of its income – STG60 million ($A114.81 million) a year – but has its sights set on financial independence.

“We talk about 600 people per week. So it’s not that much,” Alberts said. “It is doable, absolutely. As the demand increases, people will start providing the services.”

Visitors will have several days in St Helena, ample time to see the local sights, including the house where Napoleon died on May 5, 1821.

But not everyone is happy with the change.

The idea of crowds of camera-wielding tourists worries many of the island’s 4,200 residents, who worry the island cannot meet such a demand.

“You can imagine the chaos on the roads,” said Niall O’Keefe, who heads local development company Enterprise St Helena.

Local officials say change would not come instantaneously.

“In 10 years, I see St Helena livelier, with more people, more restaurants, more shops,” the island’s governor Mark Capes said.

“But it will not be a big bang, it will not happen overnight.”

Hoteliers are lobbying for a second flight to Britain, home to most of the island’s tourists.

“To have two flights a week, we will need to double our hotel capacity,” finance official Dax Richards said, adding that a surge in demand would swamp St Helena’s meagre facilities.

Currently, the island offers just 85 tourists beds for tourists and a few self-catering units.

Beds are just part of the problem. Because of its remoteness and dependence on funding, the island’s infrastructure is lacking.

Some in the tourism industry worry that well-heeled visitors will be disappointed by unprofessional service – or problems like garbage in the Jamestown moat — and vent their disappointment on influential travel websites.

Others fear something worse: that the island could lose its soul.

“I hope we don’t lose our cohesion, our sense of solidarity,” tour guide Basil George said. “That’s my fear with the airport, not the airport itself.”

Building the airport has already disturbed the island, which is framed by craggy volcanic cliffs soaring hundreds of metres above sea level and enjoys a mild climate despite being located near the equator.

A construction crew of 600 has had a big impact during the four-year project, which included chipping away at a mountain and backfilling an entire valley.

Today the runway, 1,950 metres long and 45 metres wide, ends just before the cliff drops a dramatic 300 metres into the Atlantic Ocean.

Funded by the British government and built by a South African construction company, the airport cost STG250 million ($A478.38 million).

When South African airline Comair’s Boeing 737-800 flights begin, up to 138 passengers will travel into St Helena each week – roughly the same number of people who arrive every three weeks by boat.

But the runway being built at the island’s eastern tip is not long enough to accommodate larger aircraft flying from Europe.

The airport project also includes the construction of a 14-kilometre access road, which leads into a valley near the capital Jamestown, where a new wharf is being built for STG20 million ($A38.23 million).

Before the first plane lifts off, mobile phone service is expected to start – another major upheaval.

Whatever locals think, they must soon accept the inevitable reality that after years in isolation, St Helena is joining the rest of the world.

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