St. Helena tourism cleared for takeoff

St. Helena tourism cleared for takeoff

Cut off from the rest of the world for centuries,  St  Helena, which lies isolated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, is now reachable by plane for the first time.

The aviation breakthrough promises to lift the British-run territory from obscurity and bring it within reach of international tourists. The arrival of the first commercial flight was also a relief for islanders frustrated by a delay to the opening because of high winds.

After years of procrastination, London gave the green light in 2011 for a full runway on the island. The ambition was to bring it within six hours of mainland Africa instead of the five days previously needed to make the ocean voyage from Cape Town.

British officials hoped that 30,000 tourists a year would visit the island, which is home to just 4,500 residents -- known as "Saints".

Just don't expect white sandy beaches and palm trees. Rather, the island is known as a paradise for hikers and divers with dramatic scenery and its volcanic origins, and boasts history as rich as its flora and fauna.

The British have detained various opposition forces on the island over the centuries, including the defeated Napoleon after the Battle of Waterloo who died in exile on  St Helena  in 1821.

Encouraged by London's upbeat estimates, islanders began investing in tourism, sensing an opportunity in an economy where the average annual salary is just £7,280.

Local businessman Johnny Herne runs a pleasure boat that he imported from Scotland 8,000 km away on which guests can spot humpback whales and dolphins along the craggy coastline. He has so far invested £182,000 in his business but now is drowning in debt as a result of the airport delay, which he says contributed to his divorce. "It ruined my life," he said.

Entrepreneur Paul Hickling produces a cactus liqueur and a local coffee and has invested more than £100,000."Unfortunately the airport got delayed -- but we had already invested the money."

In April 2016, just three weeks before the £285-million airport's grand opening, disaster struck.Unforeseen winds meant that takeoffs and landings were ruled too dangerous, leaving islanders dismayed.

Hazel Wilmot, a hotelier in the capital Jamestown, had large quantities of food and drink shipped to  St  Helena  and her property was fully booked. But with the delay, tourists cancelled their trips.

"I had four containers at sea full of food, full of booze that I could not use," she said. In 2016 she says she lost at least £200,000. After the 18-month delay, the first commercial flight finally touched down on October 14.

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