Martin Dinham, Regional Director for the Department for International Development (DFID) has revealed plans to build an airport in St Helena by 2012 are now at the stage of hosting a visit to the island next month from four consortia who have shown interest in building the airport. These companies will then have until November 2007 to respond, with work expected to commence by late 2008.
Once the airport is completed forecasts show that the potential for growth in tourism is considerable with visitor numbers expected to rise to 10,000 by 2020 (from under 1,000 this year). In addition the St Helena Government published an ‘Investment and Tourism Policy’ paper in October 2006 which set out the island’s distinctive qualities and the vision of where it wants to be in the international tourism market. The policy envisages a “high value, low volume” approach to tourism by developing one or two flagship resorts as well as small and medium scale investments in the accommodation, catering, leisure and services sectors. A Tourism Commissioner will also be appointed to implement a Tourism Development Project, which DFID will fund, to bring St Helena’s tourism infrastructure, products and businesses up to world class standards.
The initial steps towards an airport began in 2002 when St Helena held a referendum to decide upon the future access to the island. Over 70% of the islanders who voted opted for air access over continuing sea access, which is currently provided by the RMS St Helena, and the Ministerial decision for an airport for St Helena was formally announced by Gareth Thomas, on 14th March 2005, subject to the environmental assessment study and satisfactory bids.
The airport runway will be built to operate aircraft up to the size of a Boeing 737-800 or Airbus 320 and capable of carrying up to around 160 people. An open skies policy will allow any airline to fly to the island and in addition DFID is supporting the establishment of a scheduled service to a recognised international hub.
Initially the flights will operate once a week but frequency is likely to increase as the island develops its tourism market. Last year, six airlines expressed an interest to provide air services to the island. Three of these have now been short listed to present their proposals, and the St Helena Government will be starting negotiations with them soon to determine the preferred service supplier, to be retained early in the process to allow them to feed into the detailed design of the airport.
p>Alongside the airport construction work DFID has also recently funded a major infrastructure review looking 20 years ahead at the island’s needs beyond the airport - for power, water, roads and buildings, in order to meet the needs of its own population and to maximise the opportunities for economic development through tourism. To achieve these opportunities the island has already set about modernising its public service; creating an entrepreneurial private sector; improving the skills of its working population through vocational training; and is attracting inward investment by marketing St Helena to the outside world.
To support these investment and tourism opportunities the St Helena Development Agency, has appointed a new Managing Director with international investment experience, who will start work in early September, to liaise with the private sector to encourage investors with incentives offered for Approved Investments, such as concessions on tax and import duties. Special consideration will also be given to limiting the impact of tourist development on the island’s natural qualities and strict guidelines will be put in place to ensure that any hotel developments are sensitive to the unique environment of St Helena.
Commenting on the plans Martin Dinham said “The airport in itself can’t achieve the aspirations we all have for the island. The ability to receive scheduled flights will transform the island and will bring the outside world to St Helena on a scale that has not been seen since the island’s heyday. The Governments of the UK and St Helena must make sure that the island’s transformation is managed in a responsible way - and to ensure that the Saint community can draw maximum advantage from the advent of air access, and that we preserve the uniqueness of St Helena which is the very reason that people will want to come”.
In order to supply building materials for the airport a cargo facility is being built at Ruperts Bay with a jetty for the offloading of plant and materials. This will also provide long-term benefit for the island after the completion of the airport, when it is expect that all cargo handling facilities will move from Jamestown to the new marina.
However there are plans to undertake some port improvements in Jamestown using funding from the European Development Fund (EDF) to improve the safety of passengers disembarking from cruise ships but there are no plans to increase the size of the port to allow for more cruise ships to dock, than those already wishing to do so.
Once the airport has been completed and commercial air services begin the DFID subsidy for the 128 berth RMS St Helena, which has served the island since 1991 as a passenger/cargo ship, DFID will withdraw the current operating subsidy and at this point, unless alternative propositions are made, it is anticipated that she will be decommissioned. However, St Helena will continue to need shipping services, particularly for heavy cargo, and a number of options are being considered to provide this on a commercial basis, including regular and spot charters. DFID will provide support to the St Helena Government in putting commercial shipping arrangements in place.