30 March 2012

St Helena airport to enhance South African tourism offering

Having 1 of the world’s most isolated islands readily accessible from South Africa is likely to prove an alluring prospect for visitors seeking to experience a little-explored locale.

The island of St Helena The remote island of St Helena.

St Helena government will also be reducing its economic footprint and divesting in services to allow for much-needed private sector growth – St Helena Tourism Development Executive Mike Dean

The prospect of direct flights from South Africa to St Helena by 2015 augurs well for South African tourism, with the promise of a unique add-on in the form of an exotic island destination.

Construction of the airport – a collaboration between the British government and South African construction company Basil Read – is already under way and is expected to strengthen existing commercial and family links between St Helena and South Africa.

Flights to St Helena will take a fraction of the 5 days the RMS St Helena currently takes to reach the South Atlantic island from Cape Town, but before the first planeload of tourists arrives, a number of hotels, top-notch restaurants and island-wide tourism offerings will be in place to retain visitors for extended breaks off the African continent.

'Construction of the airport, combined with a proactive approach to growing our tourism sector and developing the overall economy, means that St Helena aims to be able to largely finance its own budget by 2022 without any need for overseas aid,' says St Helena Tourism Development Executive Mike Dean.

Large-scale investment in the tourism sector is seen as critical to developing St Helena’s private sector. The island currently attracts about 2 000 tourists annually, with direct flights set to boost this figure considerably. However there are plans to cap visitor numbers per year in order to protect the unique ecosystem and exclusivity of the island.

The St Helena government recently launched a 10-year economic development plan aimed at exposing the island’s economy to investment and increased tourism so it becomes self-sustaining. The main focus areas identified for growth are land, immigration, tax, subsidies, government capacity and tourism.

The remote 122-square kilometre island, which belongs to Britain, offers tourists a pristine natural environment which supports more than 400 endemic flora and fauna species found nowhere else on Earth. Island tours, boat trips, angling and diving, along with St Helena’s historical significance as the original burial site of Napoleon Bonaparte, add greatly to its tourist appeal.

There are many historical connections between South Africa and St Helena. In 1815 the British government detained Napoleon Bonaparte on St Helena, where he later died in 1821. During his period of detention the island belonged to the East India Company, but the British government paid for costs associated with guarding Bonaparte. St Helena was also used as a place of exile for Zulu king Dinizulu kaCetshwayo and more than 6 000 Boer prisoners captured by the British during the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War).

An experience for any visitor to St Helena today will be far less harsh. Whether they opt for a villa-style winter escape or a chance to view a sample of the 400 endemic flora and fauna species found there, the unique attractions of the volcanic island hold the promise of a welcome addition to the itinerary of foreign visitors to South Africa.

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