Advertisement

  1. ITV Report

Welcome to the world: background to our St Helena features

Welcome to the world, St Helena Photo: ITV

ITV Meridian News reporter Richard Jones first visited St Helena in 2009 when plans for an airport had been put on hold because of the recession in the UK. At that stage there were dire warnings about what would happen to the island if it didn't get regular flights. Here he explains why the airport is considered so important to the future of St Helena and what effect it might have.

St Helena has been in splendid isolation since it was first discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1502. Surrounded by thousands of miles of empty ocean, its remoteness and isolation have always been key to its character.

It became a British possession in 1658, first under the East India Company and then as a key outpost of the Empire. It was an important staging post on the trade routes between the UK and the East.

The airport will open next year Credit: ITV
St Helena is hundreds of miles from the nearest land Credit: ITV

Being hundreds of miles from the nearest land, it was considered the perfect place to imprison Britain's enemies and Napoleon was exiled to St Helena following his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. He died there six years later.

The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 meant St Helena's strategic importance diminished and the number of ships calling dropped dramatically. But it remained a garrison through both world wars and many St Helenians fought for King and Country.

For more than 50 years the Island's economy was based on the cultivation of flax (used in the production of string and rope) but in the 1960s the industry collapsed because of competition from synthetic alternatives and the island began a long, slow decline.

Reducing the island's isolation by building an airport has been talked about since the Second World War but the geography of St Helena always presented significant practical obstacles.

But in 2005 the British Government finally decided to fund the building of an airport and a majority of St Helenians backed the plans in a referendum. But when the UK was hit by the financial crisis four years later, the project was put on hold.

Mike Foster MP, then Labour's Minister for International Development, said: "Is spending £250 million on an airport for the Island someone's definition of what is reasonable in the curent economic circumstances? We thought it was prudent just to pause and say: hang on a minute, let's look at this again."

Those who supported the airport were devastated. The population of St Helena had already fallen by a third from 6 to 4,000 people.The birth rate was in decline and the number of elderly people was rising.

The then Governor Andrew Gurr told me St Helena was in danger of becoming a floating old people's home, stranded in the middle of the South Atlantic.

"That's our fear," he said. "At the moment if you look at our population profile we have half the number of people we should have between the ages of 20 and 40 and that is the guts of the economy."

Businessman Michael Benjamin was just as stark in warning: "If we don't get an airport I am quite confident that within the next 50 or 60 years it will come to the position where we will have to ask the last man here to turn the lights out - it will be that bad."

In 2010 when the new Conservative Government was elected, it decided to push ahead with the airport and in 2011 a contract was signed to build it. It's due to open with the first passenger flight from Johannesburg in May.

It's expected the airport will provide a much-needed boost to the economy by increasing the number of tourists to the Island. Currently the industry has to survive on a small number of visitors arriving once every three weeks on the RMS St Helena. With regular weekly flights, there should be a steady stream of visitors, maybe four times as many.

Almost there, aboard RMS St Helena Credit: ITV
Richard will have reports from St Helena all week Credit: ITV
A spectacular sight for visitors Credit: ITV

The long term aim is to make St Helena more self-sufficient and reduce its reliance on aid from Britain. Currently it receives a grant of £28 million a year from the Department of International Development.

As the current Governor Mark Capes told me: "The Island was in decline through emigration, a declining economy, stagnation, so what we have now is an opportunity to build a future, to have a sustainable economy, giving people good jobs and good careers, and for St Helena to stand on its own feet."

There are still sceptics. People who thought the airport wouldn't happen. It has. People who thought an aircraft would never land. One has. Seeing is believing and confidence that the airport will work is growing.

No-one really knows what will happen to St Helena in the future. There's cautious optimism and some apprehension. What's for sure is that from next year getting to one of the most isolated places on earth will be much easier.