The number of visitors to St Helena, the remote British Overseas Territory in the middle of the South Atlantic, remains worryingly low, despite widespread hopes that the island’s new airport would bring economic prosperity. Newly-released figures have revealed that, during the first six months of 2019, there were only 2,807 “passenger arrivals” to the island compared with 2,034 in the first six months of 2014.
This indicates that the island’s new airport, paid for with some £285 million of taxpayers’ money, is simply not leading to the huge influx of tourists that was so widely predicted. As The St Helena Independent, the island’s weekly independent newspaper, says in a page one headline, carried in its most recent edition: “Tourism figures refuse to increase.”
The new airport finally opened to commercial flights in October 2017. However, as I revealed in my first blog about the island in June 2016, the airport had by then been beset with countless controversies and delays.
With the arrival of the first commercial flights from South Africa, islanders hoped that this would lead to a massive increase in visitor numbers and that tourists would bring a much-needed economic uplift to a population of under 4,500 people, where the average annual wage is little more than £7,000 a year.
Indeed, before the airport opened, there were official predictions that tourist numbers would increase to 29,000 a year by 2042. Such figures now look, at best, over-optimistic and, at worst, pie in the sky.
I have long had a soft spot for St Helena because I first visited the island, accompanied by my parents, in 1948 when I was just two years old. During the past two and a half years, I have visited the island twice more writing “special reports” on my findings in both January 2017 and December 2018.
St Helena, 47 square miles in size and about a third the size of the Isle of Wight, is one of the most remote places on earth having first erupted out of the South Atlantic some 15 million years ago. Yet it is also one of the most welcoming places on the planet: “Saints”, as local residents are affectionately known, rarely fail to live up to their name in terms of giving a warm welcome to one and all.
I have scrutinised the most recently-published numbers on “passenger arrivals” and they do not make happy reading, particularly for the many Saints, including hoteliers, who have invested their life-savings in new businesses in the anticipation of vastly-increased tourist numbers.
To start with, “passenger arrivals” do not equate to “tourist arrivals” – far from it. Of the 2,807 “passenger arrivals” in the first six months of this year, the largest “country of origin” was…St Helena (with 890 people). In short, nearly a third of the total “passenger arrivals” consists either of Saints’ returning to the island after leaving for business or pleasure or, alternatively, those who now live off the island but who were visiting family and/or friends back on St Helena.
These locals are, sadly, not the sort of “passenger arrivals” who will fill hotel rooms, bars and restaurants and bring prosperity to the island and its entrepreneurs and workforce.
The second biggest “country of origin” for “passenger arrivals” was the United Kingdom, with 665 people for the first six months of this year. This total may seem low but it should be remembered that, at present, Britons have to make a huge effort, both in terms of time and money, to visit St Helena.
Not only does the journey by air, via Johannesburg, take two days each way, but visitors from the UK typically have to pay for two overnight hotels in the South African city (one night each way), quite apart from their considerable outlays once they are on St Helena. In short, even for a week, a holiday is likely to run to thousands of pounds per person.
The newly-released figures show that the total number of “non Saint tourists” who came to the island in the first six months of this year was just 811. Admittedly, that is well up on the figure of “non Saint tourists” for the first six months of 2014, which stood at just 249. However, the new total is still pitifully low. Incidentally, cruise ship passengers to St Helena are not included in the total of “passenger arrivals” as they often spend only a handful of hours on the island, usually eating on board their ships
During recent years, St Helena has received around £30 million a year in Government subsidies from the Department for International Development (DFID). The ambition remains that, with a vibrant economy that includes a strong tourism sector, the island can eventually move towards self-sufficiency.
But what is to be done? Sadly, neither I nor others have a magic wand to wave but, for starters, the island needs to become far more accessible to the outside world.
When I last visited the island eight months ago, Lawson Henry, a senior island councillor, Cabinet member and chairman of the economic and development committee, was deeply critical of the decision to have the “hub” – for flights to and from St Helena – in Johannesburg rather than Cape Town (where Saints have strong historic links and where tourists feel safer and keener to visit than Johannesburg).
“We have to have a re-look at the hub and people have to be able to reach the island from different points of origin…If we don’t make these interventions, I think tourists will eventually stop coming,” he told me.
To be fair to the St Helena Government, it is addressing this issue: there will be trial midweek flights, starting in December and operated by Airlink, to and from Cape Town.
In the long run too, the authorities need to find ways of flying directly to St Helena from Europe, ideally the UK. I have no doubt that this would see a huge rise in the number of tourists visiting the island from the Britain and other European countries.
It is ridiculous that only 108 French people visited St Helena in the first six months of this year, given the immense interest from the nation in Napoleon, who was exiled to St Helena in 1815 and who died there six years later. With regular flights from Europe, this figure could easily run to several thousand French tourists to the island each year.
Tomorrow, we will know the identity of our new Prime Minister: either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt. His first major task will, of course, be to try to sort out the Brexit debacle.
However, at some point, sooner rather than later, the new Prime Minister and his senior Government colleagues will need to tackle a second, less well publicised, debacle: the one that continues to be inflicted upon the residents of St Helena. One thing is certain: Saints deserve a far better deal from their British rulers than they are getting at present.