The island of Saint Helena has a great deal to offer visitors. A rich history, natural beauty, and the rare characteristic of being a genuinely un-touristed place. Since the airport opened in 2016, arrivals to the island have grown year on year. In fact, before the coronavirus crisis stopped scheduled arrivals, more than 23,000 passengers had flown to and from the airport.
Open for business
Without a doubt, Saint Helena is open for business. Since the day the airport opened, it has not closed once; not through COVID, not at any point. That in itself is an achievement, but for the airport that was once dubbed the ‘most useless in the world,’ proving its usefulness and credibility has been an uphill battle.
Speaking to James Kellett, Compliance Manager at Saint Helena Airport, he was keen to stress that the airport has already made great strides towards boosting visitor numbers to the island. He told me,
“The airport has proven that we can bring flights in safely, that people can come and go. We’ve had nearly 23,000 passengers experience flights since scheduled services started.”
Previously, the only way to get to Saint Helena was on the RMS Saint Helena. Trips would be long, with little time on the island. James told me people would usually take three weeks to visit, but only spend eight days on the island. Now, when scheduled services are operating, it’s perfectly possible to fly down in a couple of days and get far more time on the South Atlantic paradise.
Of course, a visit to Saint Helena isn’t for everyone. James himself admits it’s a fairly narrow target market, saying,
“It’s a niche market. It’s never going to be Spain. You have to be dedicated to get here, because we’re the other side of the world from the northern hemisphere perspective. But the numbers will grow gradually.”
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Slow and steady growth
If you have the drive, there’s a lot to love about Saint Helena. From Napoleon’s home to the Georgian buildings of Jamestown, from the well signposted walking trails to the huge schools of whale sharks and opportunities to dive unspoiled waters, a certain sort of person would get an awful lot out of their time here.
Of course, despite the positive figures, the naysayers still complain. The headline figure, which was often bandied about prior to and during the airport’s construction, was for 30,000 annual visitors to the island. What people conveniently forget, however, is that this number was targeted for 2042.
It’s a long term goal and one that Saint Helena is well on track to achieve. In 2018, for example, total arrivals were more than 3,800, well ahead of the 2,075 prediction. By all accounts, 2020 was set to be the best year yet. James told me that, in February this year, Saint Helena Airport received its highest number of passengers and tourists yet. But then, of course, came COVID.
Saint Helena remains one of the few places on Earth not to record a single case of COVID-19 yet. But that doesn’t mean that the island hasn’t felt the effects of this pandemic. There have been no scheduled passenger flights to or from the island since March 21st, only the odd charter flight to keep the island connected. This has stunted the airport’s positive growth and is likely to make 2020 the worst performing year so far.
Most Saints are bracing themselves for at least six months of downturn. But, in the long run, things are looking up. Once the COVID situation has passed, the Saints are ready to welcome the world with open arms. All we need now is a regular flight from the UK.