By Christian Selz
The South Atlantic island of St Helena opened its first airport late in 2017. Now enough tourists are coming to sustain the economy, but their small numbers get to enjoy unspoiled landscapes and clear ocean waters in Napoleon’s place of exile.
“You may experience some discomfort” is not exactly what you want to hear as your plane dips towards gaunt volcanic peaks during its landing approach over the ocean.
But bumpy descents at St Helena’s newly opened airport are a small price to pay for the South Atlantic island’s fast link to the outside world after decades of travel by sea only.
“You’re not on a boat for five days when you want to go on holiday,” says Derek Richards, who runs a guest house on this tiny, isolated British territory located about midway between Brazil and Angola.
More people are coming the other way, too, drawn to this unusual destination by its seclusion, imperial history and natural abundance. Around 80 tourists visited each week since the airport opened last October, with one weekly flight from Johannesburg.
St Helena seems quite desolate at first glance, its landscape dominated by steep mountains of dark volcanic rock. Napoleon Bonaparte was sent here in 1815 to live out his life in exile because there was simply nowhere for him to escape to.
But first impressions are deceptive. The island offers hiking, boat tours, diving, fishing, warm weather (average temperatures of 20-24 degrees Celsius), comfortable stays and a gentle pace of life. Yet it also feels curiously close to Europe.
Pegged to the pound sterling, the St Helena pound is used to make most payments. The island’s administration is directly subordinate to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Its few cars drive on the left, and the official language is English – although the Saints, as the 4,500 inhabitants call themselves, speak a uniquely accented variant.
From 1990, the British mail ship RMS St Helena used to connect the island with Britain and the wider world, sailing via Cape Town in South Africa. The monthly arrival of meat, vegetables, medicines and a handful of travellers set the tempo on the island for decades. After the air route was opened, the ship was retired from service in February 2018.
A replacement vessel brings only goods, and locals say freight charges per container have risen, adding to the island’s already high cost of living. This is blamed on Brexit, which caused inflation here since 2016. Increased tourism is hoped to compensate and reduce St Helena’s dependence on the British government.
The idea has long been to persuade people to invest money here, says Governor Lisa Phillips, “But that was difficult because the airport was not yet open.”
Now there is a growing need for guest beds and facilities, adds Phillips, who receives visitors in her office in the fort, one of the first sites built by the British in the 17th century. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hangs on the wall behind her.
Investments have gradually picked up, both from private individuals like Richards, and the island’s government, which refurbished and joined three historic townhouses in the centre of the capital Jamestown to create an elegant hotel. But Phillips also worries that while pushing up prices, Britain’s exit from the EU jeopardises the continuation of EU support programmes in St Helena.
Regarded by some as the “most out-of-the-way place in the world,” the island has for centuries enjoyed links to Europe. After discovering it in 1502, the Portuguese used the uninhabited 121-square-kilometre patch of land as a supply station. They introduced livestock, planted fruit trees and stockpiled drinking water.
Other European powers coveted the strategic location, and the Dutch and the British even fought over the island. In 1657, the British Crown gave the rights to the administration of St Helena to the British East India Company, which began to fortify and colonise it with planters.
But St Helena’s most famous inhabitant was French. The defeated Napoleon was banished and guarded by the British here until his death in 1821, but enjoyed freedom of movement and a rich supply of food and other things from Madeira, Cape Town and Spain.
His story is a reason many people visit. Local tour guide Trevor Magellan now takes regular groups to the guest house where the emperor first lived on the island. He chaperoned 32 visitors in the past week, and 25 more just today, Magellan says proudly.
Meanwhile, boats operating out of Jamestown’s small harbour bring divers to explore the reefs among the colourful surgeon fish, rockfish and moray eels.
But the main attraction between November and March are the huge plankton-eating whale sharks, which, much like the islanders, calmly go about their business alongside the steady trickle of curious visitors. – DPA