Visitors to Cape Town next winter will have more opportunity to tack on a trip to St Helena, one of the most remote islands in the world and site of Napoleon’s imprisonment after the Battle of Waterloo.
The Atlantic outcrop and British Overseas Territory will, in December 2019, welcome a second weekly flight from the South African city, raising the prospect of a dual-city break, St Helena’s tourist board says. The new SA Airlink six-hour service will fly there and back on Tuesdays, via Walvis Bay, Namibia, in addition to the existing Saturday flights.
The route marks a potential watershed in the island’s tourism. Until 2017, travellers could only reach St Helena, 1,200 miles from the nearest landmass, by a five-day journey on a Royal Mail ship.
An airport in the capital, Jamestown, opened in 2016 after years of delays and controversy, during which it was dubbed “the world’s most useless” airport, before welcoming its first commercial flights a year later.
Tourism to St Helena has since soared, hitting record numbers in 2018. Last year, from October to October, more than 1,650 people visited for a holiday, more than in any previous year and nearly twice that of the previous 12 months.
The island is working towards a target of 30,000 visitors, as detailed in the business case for the £285million airport, first mooted by the British Government in 2005.
“Our summer season is the perfect time to discover St Helena’s natural wonders, including the annual visit of whale sharks, as well as the fascinating history and local culture,” said Helena Bennett, St Helena’s director of tourism.
“The addition of a second weekly flight from Cape Town is fantastic news, providing travellers the chance to add on a short three or four-night trip getting a taste of our unique island and a stint to one of South Africa’s top destinations.”
The island, on which Napoleon died (his last residence, Longwood House, is now a museum), is also home to dramatic cliffs, hiking trails and bird-watching opportunities. The climate is mild for much of the year, with temperatures hovering between 20C and 27C, and while English is the main language, the island’s cuisine has Malay and Chinese influences.
Just 10 miles long and with a population of 4,534 at the 2016 census, St Helena is the second oldest remaining British Overseas Territory after Bermuda. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502 and was colonised by Britain in 1658 on the orders of Oliver Cromwell.
What’s the story of the 'useless' airport?
The British Government first announced plans to build an airport on St Helena in 2005, but problems finding a suitable construction firm and financial pressures brought on by the global recession meant contracts were not signed until 2011.
The airport officially opened in June 2016, but with a major proviso: large jets cannot land there due to dangerous winds. On April 18, 2016, a test flight operated by Comair for British Airways saw a Boeing 737-800 need three attempts to make a successful landing, and for more than a year only small private planes were cleared to use it.
An official report released in 2016 said it was “staggering” that the impact of difficult weather conditions was not foreseen and described the airport - labelled by some “the world’s most useless” - as “a £285m white elephant [that] serves neither its people nor the taxpayers footing the bill”. That figure works out at nearly £63,000 for each of the territory’s 4,534 residents.
The first scheduled passenger flights began in 2017, and have reportedly been a success.