St Helena joins tourism map


Jamestown - A strong wind was blowing as South African pilot Grant Brighton expertly brought his twin-engine Beechcraft King Air 200 down onto the runway, making history with the first landing on St Helena.

The remote Atlantic island has got an airport at last, and Brighton was the first pilot to land there September 15. The facility is likely to end the splendid isolation of the British island.

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The first plane ever to land at the newly completed first St Helena bay airport. Picture: St Helena Bay Govt Facebook pageSt Helena remains one of the worlds most remote inhabited islands  but that has changed now.

Two centuries after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and his subsequent banishment to St Helena, where he died, the island suddenly finds itself on the international tourism map.

The volcanic island, barely 10 kilometres long, has been wakened from its slumber after the travel guide Lonely Planet put it on its Top-10 list of attractions in the region.

Everyone knew the name St Helena, but most people couldn't really find it on the map.

Those who wanted to visit had to get there by ship, since the island is in the middle of the Atlantic, 2 000 kilometres from southern Africa to the east and 3 000 kilometres from South America to the west.

After St Helena's first settlement in the 16th century, the only connection to the outside world for the “Saints” - the island inhabitants - were supply ships.

Now things have changed, after a monumental effort by a South African construction company, Basil Read, over the past four years.

Vast tonnages of rugged volcanic rock had to be blasted away and an entire valley had to be filled in to form a large enough flat area for the 1 950-metre-long runway.

Brighton's plane is still being used to calibrate the airport, where the formal opening is set for February 26, 2016.

British Airways subsidiary Comair is planning once-weekly flights from Johannesburg to St Helena with a Boeing 737-800. The flying time is some five hours.

After next Easter, the German holiday airline Tui-fly will be operating regular flights between London and the island for the Atlantic Star Airlines alliance.

“We are expecting this to provide an enormous boost to tourism,” a spokeswoman for the St Helena tourism office in Jamestown said.

But there are also some words of caution, such as from an island economist, Niall O'Keefe: “Much remains to be done in order to develop the hotel and tourism industry in the years ahead.”

The few inns on the island that were up to the task of hosting the occasional visitor will no longer be adequate, he wrote on the island's website. As a result, there are plans for a 32-bed hotel.

Cliffs of black basalt, rock formations rent by crevices, and lush green vegetation: St Helena is a paradise for urbanites seeking some peace and quiet. Jamestown is the biggest town on the island with 1 000 inhabitants, nearly one-fourth of the total population.

Beside the stark natural setting, the attraction for many travellers is that the island was Napoleon's last residence.

The island was discovered by Portuguese admiral Joao de Nova on a return voyage from India. On May 21, 1502 his ship put down anchor at the place where Jamestown is now located. The island later became a Dutch possession, and finally British.

For centuries the island was a way-station for seafarers to stock up on fresh water and fruits. In 1988 St Helena got its own constitution, but continued to be subsidised by the British government.

Being part of the Commonwealth, St Helena's head of state is Queen Elizabeth II. Now, in another historic event, the royal postal ship St Helena, which has been used to keep the island in touch with the rest of the world, will be taken out of service.

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