SLOW LANE: Until the airport is complete, the RMS St Helena is the only way to reach the island, other than by private yacht. The voyage from Cape Town takes about five days. Pictures: St Helena Tourism
SLOW LANE: Until the airport is complete, the RMS St Helena is the only way to reach the island, other than by private yacht. The voyage from Cape Town takes about five days. Pictures: St Helena Tourism
<KENOX S1050  / Samsung S1050>
<KENOX S1050 / Samsung S1050>

An island of contrasts, from wind-eroded desert to soft pastures and lush, vegetation-filled valleys, St Helena Island is set to get a new airport that will dramatically change its face from one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world.

Currently attracting only about 2 000 tourists annually, St Helena has now seen construction begin on its new airport – following the signing of a contract between the British government and South African construction firm Basil Read.

A British overseas territory, St Helena has strong commercial and family links with SA, and Cape Town in particular.

Without the airport, the south Atlantic Ocean island is accessible only by ship – and it’s a five-day trip to cover the 2 400km from Cape Town.

Travel is aboard the Royal Mail Ship St Helena, which provides the island’s only regular physical link with the rest of the world.

But it’s also a popular port of call for yachts, a large number of which stop there every year where they’re assured of a warm welcome in Jamestown, the island’s main settlement and only harbour.

Due to start operating in December 2015, the airport is expected to significantly boost tourist numbers to the island, which is blessed with a pleasant climate, with temperatures up to 36ºC in summer, and 26ºC in winter.

This island has a rich history, probably the best-known part of which is that it was home to Napoleon during his exile, and where he died.

It is also home to 400 different species of endemic plants.

Mike Dean, St Helena Tourism development executive, believes that with the correct conditions, the island could achieve a top 10 percent ranking globally for Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth.

“Construction of the airport, combined with a proactive approach to growing our tourism sector and developing the overall economy, means that St Helena aims to be able to largely finance its own budget by 2022, without any need for overseas aid,” he said.

The private sector would also benefit, with the opportunity to build hotels and good-quality restaurants, and increase tourist activities.

St Helena currently boasts only three hotels, along with a number of self-catering bed-and-breakfasts in Jamestown and the country areas.

Dean explained that as part of St Helena’s 10-year Sustainable Development Plan, the government had included a 10-year economic plan outlining how they would open the island’s economy to investment, and boost tourism in order to become self-sustaining.

Currently, the island’s biggest industry is its public sector, with the most active parts of the private sector including construction, fishing and tourism. None of these, however, generates significant levels of business.

As things stand, the island is currently in the bottom 20 percent globally in terms of GDP growth over the 10-year period between 1999 and 2009, according to the International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook.

It is supported largely by the UK government and various other overseas donors.

Dean said this was mostly thanks to a lack of significant export earnings, a massive decline in population, weak productivity growth, and low levels of private sector consumption and investment.

Once the new airport is complete, they expect all that to change.

The runway will be large enough to cater for aircraft such as the Boeing 737 or Airbus A31.

An “open skies” policy will exist, which means any airline could operate flights to the island.

It is likely that flights from Namibia and SA will be the main operators, with the expected travel time about four hours.

Dean explained that the airport, which would consist of a terminal building alongside the 1 500m runway, would be built on Prosperous Bay Plain, on the north-east side of the island.

“Considerable investment in other infrastructure, including roads, utilities and housing, as well as the tourism industry, will all be part of the airport project,” he added. - Weekend Argus