One of the world’s most isolated, yet fascinating, places is about to become a traveler’s paradise after its first commercial flight landed on Saturday.
St. Helena, a South Atlantic island off the coast of Africa, was previously only accessible by boat — a trip which took nearly a week on the Royal Mail Ship to arrive from Cape Town. Since 1990, the RMS St Helena was the island’s only link to the mainland. The maiden flight by SA Airlink left Johannesburg and took just six hours.
It is a monumental milestone for St. Helena, as it is hoped the new weekly air service will draw more tourists to the British-ruled territory. Best known for being the last place of exile for French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte (and his final resting place), St. Helena has huge tourism potential.
It has a pristine coastline, rugged landscapes and plentiful marine life. The volcanic island’s quirkier fixtures include a giant tortoise named Jonathan that is said to be 185 years old and Jacob’s Ladder, a 699-step outdoor staircase leading from a valley to a hilltop in Jamestown, the capital.
It’s been a long wait for locals and eager tourists, with the original flights planned to land more than a year ago.
The official opening of the St. Helena airport, built on the island’s Prosperous Bay Plain for about $480 million of British taxpayers’ money, was supposed to happen in May 2016, according to the Associated Press. But a Comair Boeing 737 test flight at the airport encountered severe wind shear, a phenomenon referring to a quick change in wind speed or direction, or both. The runway is located on a mountain just 300 metres from the sea.
The winds meant the airport could not be opened in 2016 as originally planned with a ribbon-cutting by Prince Edward, Queen Elizabeth II’s youngest son, and led to it being dubbed the "world’s most useless airport."
However, a change in the type of plane planned to be used for the route — now a smaller Embraer E190 carrying fewer passengers — has alleviated the concerns after more than a year of test flights, the AFP reports. The flight from Johannesburg includes a stop in Windhoek, the Namibian capital.
Tourism would bring a much-needed boost to St. Helena, which lies about 1930 kilometres west of the border between Angola and Namibia, the nearest mainland.
The island’s biggest industry was once growing flax for the manufacture of rope, but St. Helena’s population of more than 4000 people is now heavily dependent on British government support. The average salary on St. Helena is just $12,280.
Around 100 islanders came out to the airport to watch the historic landing of the Embraer 190 jet which came from Johannesburg carrying 60 passengers.
“It is connecting us to the world and it is opening us to the world,” Niall O’Keeffe, in charge of economic development on the island told AFP.
“It will bring in tourists and we will be able to get a better standard of living,” added Lisa Phillips, the island’s governor.
The island will be served by a weekly service from Johannesburg costing about $1350 with return.