Tiny St. Helena Island Needs Hotels, Tourists

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Written by Dana Sanchez

One of the most isolated islands in the world., St. Helena in the South Atlantic attracted about 2,000 visitors in 2012 but hopes to boost tourism to 30,000 visits after its airport is built, according to a report in HowWeMadeItInAfrica.

Perhaps best known as Napoleon Bonaparte’s final home in exile, the island will soon become home to new international airport scheduled to open in February 2016. It is expected to turn St. Helena’s economy around dramatically.

Most of St. Helena’s visitors come from South Africa and Europe. The first flights would likely be from Cape Town, with possible additional routes to Johannesburg and Europe, the report said.

Twelve hundred miles away, Angola is the island’s nearest landmass, due east. Luanda’s Quatro de Fevereiro International Airport is the nearest transportation hub for the volcanic South Atlantic island, population 4,255. St. Helena measures about five-miles-by-10-miles and is part of the British colony of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.

The island served for centuries as an important stopover for ships sailing to Europe from South Africa and Asia after it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. The British also used the island to send into exile Napoleon I, Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo – he became king of the Zulu nation in 1884 and was accused of high treason – and more than 5,000 Boer prisoners. St. Helena is Britain’s second oldest remaining colony after Bermuda.

With the new airport, the island hopes to turn itself into an upscale tourism destination, the report said. Tourist arrivals could grow to 30,000 a year within 10 years of the airport’s opening, studies show.

On a trip to drum up business, St. Helena’s Gov. Mark Capes traveled to Cape Town with an island delegation to highlight investment opportunities the airport will bring.

“St. Helena is reconnecting to the world. We want to develop our tourism infrastructure and expand our economy,” Capes told HowWeMadeItInAfrica. He’s hoping the airport will boost other industries such as commercial fishing and agriculture.

But its biggest draw will be its natural beauty, he said. Evolving in isolation, the island was once home to unique plant and animal species. Most of Saint Helena’s endemic birds became extinct since human habitation began but wirebird breeding programs are on-going.

The island also has great diving and game fishing. “Even somebody like myself who is completely useless when it comes to fishing has pulled out a 230-pound tuna,” said Julian Morris, outgoing head of the Enterprise St. Helena development agency, in HowWeMadeItInAfrica. “The fishing really is quite something.”

St. Helena’s remoteness and relative obscurity as a destination hold huge appeal for visitors, Morris said. “St. Helena is probably one of the last unexplored, unvisited places on the planet. Everyone has been to Mauritius; everyone has been to the Seychelles. That appeal of going somewhere where people haven’t gone to, and people typically don’t go to, is a very powerful pull.”

The airport is expected to create business opportunities for new hotels, restaurants and outdoor activities operators.

St. Helena is looking to develop a “low-volume, high-value” tourism industry, the report said. Due to the island’s small size, however, there is a cap on the number of visitors it can accommodate, Morris said.

“We are not chasing 20-30 hotels. We are chasing probably three or four hotels… We have to protect the product, so we can’t overdevelop,” Morris said.

St. Helena has historically had strong business ties South Africa, with Cape Town generally considered the gateway to the island. “The island’s point of resupply is Cape Town. South African companies are typically the providers of choice for foodstuffs, for building supplies (and) for services,” Morris said.

St. Helena is targeting South African companies for investment on the island.

With two years until the opening of the airport, business people who get in early will have an advantage, Morris said. There is an opportunity to get in ahead of the game.