St Helena, one of the most isolated islands in the world, will receive its first-ever commercial flight this week. It has been a long wait for locals and eager tourists, with the original flights planned to land almost half a decade ago. After the British government agreed to spend £285m to build the airport in 2010, it was originally deemed unsafe to use immediately after completion due to the hazardous wind shear conditions created by site’s environmental and geographical landscape. The situation led many to call it the “world’s most useless airport.” However, a change in the type of plane planned to be used for the route – now a Brazilian-built Embraer jet – and the decision to use a maximum of 76 of its 99 seats, have alleviated the concerns.
This British overseas territory sits 1200 miles off the coast of Africa in the mid-Atlantic, and has been accessible over the past centuries by sea only. The Royal Mail ship RMS St Helena has been the island’s one link to the mainland since 1990, with regular six-day voyages to and from Cape Town, South Africa. Given the cost of the journey can be over £4000, it has severely limited the movement of the 4500 St Helenians whose average income is just over £7000. The RMS St Helena’s last sailing is now scheduled for 5 February 2018.
The flights will not only be a boon for locals, but also for those wanting to visit this fascinating island. Best known for being the last place of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte (and where he died), St Helena has huge tourism potential. This flourish of green on the big blue canvas of the Atlantic Ocean has eccentric charm, not to mention wild walking trails, welcoming locals and wonderful wildlife encounters. It’s not for nothing that St Helena is nicknamed the Galápagos of the South Atlantic; after 14 million years of isolation, it boasts 500 endemic species and a coastline frequented by marine life including dolphins and whale sharks.
It’s hoped the increase in tourism will make the island more self-sufficient, and infrastructure to deal with the increased number of visitors is already in the works. The first luxury hotel on the St Helena – the 30-room Mantis St Helena Jamestown, the island’s capital – is set to open for the arrival of the first flight on 14 October.
Return flights to St Helena from Johannesburg cost £804.