Saint Helena: Mixed reactions over airport plans

By James Melik
Reporter, Business Daily, BBC World Service

image captionIssuing stamps has been a big money-spinner for the island

The news that an airport is being built on the volcanic island of Saint Helena has been greeted with mixed emotions.

The British territory, with a population of 4,000, is located in the middle of South Atlantic Ocean - and its residents are known as Saints.

It is one of most remote islands in the world, situated between Angola and Brazil, and the only way to get there is by ship from either Ascension Island or Cape Town in South Africa.

"The airport will improve access and enable tourism to develop," says Julian Morris, chief executive for economic development on the island.

However, that is precisely what some islanders do not want.

"We will just become a destination at the end of another strip of Tarmac," laments one Saint, who prefers to remain anonymous because feelings are running high between supporters and opponents of the project.

Mr Morris admits that people cannot agree on everything all of the time, but points to a referendum when islanders overwhelmingly voted for the airport

"The project is properly mandated," he insists, whereas disgruntled Saints believe the referendum was slanted in the government's favour.

Replacing funding

The current British coalition government has revived plans to build an airport on the island over the next four years.

Some question the validity of spending £250m in times of austerity, but the UK government says it will lead to saving because it currently spends £25m annually to keep the island solvent, and that funding will eventually be dropped.

"At the moment, the island cannot improve its financial situation because of its remoteness," says Mr Morris.

He maintains that an airport will not only increase tourism, but it will also enable activities such as deep-sea fishing to develop.

"The plan does not involve the island becoming an off-shore financial centre," he insists.

"We want to increase tourism for discerning people, not as a mass market destination," he says.

He also notes that for a small island, measuring 16km by 8km (10 miles by five miles), developing its tourism sector sustainability is very important.

Previously, the main source of income for the island was flax, until the closure of the island's flax mills in 1965.

The industry declined because of transportation costs and competition from synthetic fibres, while the decision by the British Post Office to use synthetic fibres for its mailbags was a further blow.

Rich history

Saint Helena is Britain's second oldest remaining overseas territory, after Bermuda, and has a colourful history.

image captionThe remoteness of the island is one of the main attractions for people looking for something different

In 1657, Oliver Cromwell granted the English East India Company a charter to govern Saint Helena and the following year the company fortified the island and colonised it.

The British later used the island as a place of exile, most notably for Napoleon Bonaparte - although the Zulu king Cetewayo was also incarcerated there following his defeat in the Boer Wars.

The Saint Helena tourist industry is heavily based on the promotion of Napoleon's imprisonment.

Saint Helena also gains significant income by issuing its own postage stamps.

Unpredictable change

The airport is expected to create between 500-700 new jobs, which should allow the island to become more self-sufficient.

Ivy Yon runs a bed and breakfast establishment and is worried that accommodation standards on the island might not be up to scratch if there is a big influx of visitors.

"I don't know how we will cope with the numbers," she says, while remarking that there is little room to build hotels in Jamestown and, even if there was, it would spoil the look of the island's capital.

"If the hotels have to be built in the countryside, it will spoil the natural beauty that has attracted visitors to the island in the first place."

There are also concerns as to whether the electricity and water supplies could cope with an increase in numbers.

The unhappy Saint who spoke to the BBC believes the British island in the tropics already caters to a niche market.

"It is ideal for people over 50," he says, "When they have handed over the reins of a business to someone younger and have time on their hands."

He says at the moment they can enjoy the leisurely boat trip to and from Cape Town, whereas everywhere now has an airport.

"You can now travel up the Amazon and to the Antarctic," he says, adding that mass tourism will change the dynamics of the island dramatically.

He is also sceptical about the number of jobs which will be created when the airport is built.

"We will probably end up cleaning toilets and it will be the inward investors who profit the most," he says.

Furthermore, when planes start landing on the island, the ship will stop running, which will cut down on the amount of freight which can be carried to the island.

"I have to ask how many cars or concrete you can fit into a plane," he says with hint of sarcasm.

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