Special report on St Helena: the island of fading hopes and dreams

  • 14 December, 2018
  • Politics
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First published on ConservativeHome.com on 14 December 2018.

The breath-taking view during the last half-mile of the short taxi ride from St Helena Airport to the heart of Jamestown is one that I will never tire of admiring.



On each side of a steep valley are cliffs that soar to more than 600 feet while, at the bottom, the streets of the island’s capital are full of charm and character as they lead down to the sea. Beyond the promenade are scores of boats of all shapes and sizes bobbing in the usually sheltered waters of James Bay.

The view is also a signal that I am about to meet arguably the world’s friendliest local people: “Saints”, as the islanders like to be known, are warm-hearted, hard-working and family-orientated.

However, last weekend on my third visit to the island, the numerous locals that I met were not their usual cheery selves. In fact, I detected an overwhelming mood of weariness, frustration and, at times, even burning anger.

“The island is at an all-time low. There are no tourists, no money. Morale is not good: everyone is feeling the pinch and hurting,” said Patrick Henry, 53, who along with his partner, Lucille Johnson, 44, owns V2 Taxis, which I use for my shuttles to and from the airport.

They, like other islanders, invested their life-savings into businesses on the basis that the new airport, built with £285 million of taxpayers’ money and which finally opened to passenger flights 14 months ago, would bring unprecedented numbers of visitors to St Helena and, with them, economic prosperity.

The couple now have three businesses: an 18-vehicle taxi fleet, a pub and a café – but not enough customers to justify the “huge amount of money” that they have invested.

St Helena, about a third the size of the Isle of Wight, is a British Overseas Territory that became famous as the location where Napoleon Bonaparte, the defeated French emperor, spent the majority of his exile until his death in 1821.

As a volcanic island that erupted out of the South Atlantic 15 million years ago, it is one of the most remote places on earth: some 1,200 miles from the African mainland and 1,800 miles from Brazil.

The island has a population of less than 4,500 who earn an average wage of little more than £7,000 a year. Yet inflation is running at 4.1 per cent and the average cost of goods and services are said to be 14 per cent more than in the UK due to the additional bills that remoteness brings.

Saint Helena Airport

St Helena Airport

The airport was built to replace the Royal Mail Ship St Helena as it reached the end of its life. The “RMS”, as it was affectionately known, took five days to reach the island from Cape Town. However, after various flight safety issues, St Helena now has only one regular weekend return flight from Johannesburg, with each flight capable of carrying less than 100 passengers.

The cost of a return economy flight from Johannesburg is typically around £900 and many flights have been delayed, in some cases by several days, due to weather problems. Several potential tourists have even returned home with bills running to thousands of pounds for flights and hotels without ever landing on the island.

I first came to St Helena with my parents when I was a toddler, while I came for the second time in January 2017. The purpose of my third visit last weekend was to speak to those who help to run the island, those entrepreneurs investing in it and also the man – and woman – on the street.

Hazel Wilmot

Hazel Wilmot

The biggest inward investor on St Helena is Hazel Wilmot, who has spent nearly £3 million buying and renovating both the Consulate Hotel in Jamestown and a 17-acre farm inland.

Her spending was based on the anticipation that the airport, originally due to open in 2012 before the opening was delayed twice more for safety reasons, would result in riches for entrepreneurs. Yet, in the run-up to the airport’s actual opening in October last year, Ms Wilmot says she went nine months without a single overnight paying guest.

Ms Wilmot, 62, was reduced to tears as she told me of her exasperation during her decade on the island after moving there from Botswana. She says her losses since December 2008 total more than £700,000 – or an average of over £70,000 a year.

“Tourism has not generated the income that we were expecting or that we were promised,” she said, adding that islanders were even encouraged to invest long after the Department for International Development (DFID) and the St Helena Government (SHG) learnt that strong unpredictable winds – known as “wind shear” – would endanger flights.

“We are basically being told ‘hang in there, sweetheart, and it’ll come right’. Well, I am surprised a few of us haven’t hung ourselves never mind just hung in there.”

Before the airport opened, official figures predicted that the tourist numbers to the island would increase from around 1,000 a year to 29,000 a year by 2042. “It’s completely pie in the sky,” said Ms Wilmot.

“The only way I am going anywhere is if you carry me out in a box,” she added. “But I am finding it very difficult at the moment.” Then the tears flowed before she added: “I don’t see any end in sight.” She now plans to seek a judicial review in the UK in order to seek compensation from DFID for its alleged incompetence and deceit.

With Lyn Thomas

With Lyn Thomas

Lyn Thomas, who has lived on the island all her life, is married with a stepson, two daughters and seven grandchildren. Along with her husband Larry and daughter Tara, Mrs Thomas, aged 54, own two companies that operate seven shops and employ 40 people.

She told me of her frustration at waiting seven years for the SHG and the Environment and Natural Resources Directorate (ENRD) to make a decision on whether she can buy or lease a plot of land to build a retail centre that incorporates activities for young children and teenagers.

“I have gone round and round and round. If you don’t move your business forward, it starts to slide back. It’s the frustration of begging and cow-towing, and I am not very good at it. There are times when I lose my patience but I will carry on,” said Mrs Thomas.

Mrs Thomas, who was formerly the Chairman of the Bank of St Helena, added: “Sometimes subsidies breed inefficiency so I don’t l like the word ‘subsidy’ but people can need a hand up to get fully functioning and financially viable.”

Many people on and off the island are desperate to have a direct flight link to Europe, in general, and the UK, in particular. Atlantic Star Airlines, headed by British pilot Richard Brown, remains keen to operate such a service but without public and/or private funds flights to and from the island would be too costly. Furthermore, Atlantic Star could only operate such a service with permission from SHG, which, for now at least, has only one flight contract with South African operator Airlink.

Gregory Cairns-Wicks, 54, is a married man with two children, who has lived on the island for 36 years. He owns and/or runs a 275-acre beef farm, three shops and an importing business.

Mr Cairns-Wicks told me that in recent times taxes, import duties and freight charges have all increased, while targeted subsidies to the island have fallen and wages remain low.

St Helena Airport runway

St Helena Airport runway

“One way or another, things are not looking good,” he said, adding that some islanders are looking to move to the Falkland Islands, Ascension Island and the UK in search of higher wages and the means of eventually being able to afford to build their own house on St Helena. “When we lose young families, then that is a significant knock to the economy,” he said.

He said that unreliable flights meant that tourists, who have a choice of any number of destinations around the world, would not risk booking holidays on St Helena. “Unless something technical can be done with the airport to improve reliability, it’s going to be very, very difficult to build the economy – like trying to light a fire with a box of wet matches.”

Basil George

Basil George

Basil George, 82, a former teacher and the island’s former Director of Education – who now runs a tour company, Magma Way, with his son Kevin – is full of knowledge about the island. He believes that St Helena needs to maximise its resources, including its fishing and farming, while also diversifying.

“It’s a hugely difficult period. We need to manage this, going through this very difficult transition,” he told me “The status we have as a self-governing territory and with a very small population really puts us in an impossible situation.”

During my two-day visit, I was a guest at Mantis St Helena, situated a stone’s throw from the sea in the heart of Jamestown. The hotel is stylish, well-run and well-staffed. In short, it has everything that anyone could wish from a 30-room, four-star boutique hotel except…a steady flow of guests.

The hotel, which opened its doors earlier this year, is managed, rather than owned, by the Mantis Collection, and is heavily subsided by SHG which saw the need to get an international-standard hotel on St Helena if it was to attract wealthy tourists. Yet, due to the island’s problems, the hotel’s occupancy rate hovers at between 15 and 20 per cent.

The Mantis Collection, founded and chaired by Adrian Gardiner, a successful South African businessman, had originally hoped to expand its interest on the island but now, like many other businesses, its confidence is waning in that the current airlift is not conducive to a successful tourist destination or other business opportunities.

DFID and SHG must never forget that international investors can look to operate anywhere in the world and so St Helena’s rulers must offer them assistance, encouragement and hope.

Already massive investment opportunities on the island have been missed. I am told that Shelco (the St Helena Leisure Corporation Ltd,) whose former chairman Sir Nigel Thompson like me has links to the island going back more than half a century, “lost the will to live” over countless delays to the first phase of its £120 million hotel and country club development for the island.

As a result, it recently sold a controlling stake in the company to Paul O’Sullivan, a successful businessman, who also has ambitious development leisure plans for the island but who will never be foolish enough to sink in tens of millions of pounds of investment until the airport and other problems have been sorted out.

Mr O’Sullivan, who is the CEO of St Helena Corporation Plc, has 40 years’ experience as a pilot and therefore knows a thing or two about “next gen” (next generation) navigational aids.

He has told me that he believes St Helena’s current GBAS (Ground Based Augmentation System), fitted at a cost of some £2 million, can be adapted to enable planes to land on the island in most weathers. “It’s a major issue and if it’s not fixed soon, it will consign the island to a bleak future,” he said.

Mr O’Sullivan, who visited the island earlier this month, remains confident that, with a positive approach from DFID and SHG, he will invest more heavily on the island, and he has already built a show house there. “We did not go there to ‘loot and scoot’, we’re in for the long-haul and prepared to be patient,” he said.

Everyone on the island has thoughts on how it could prosper. Mike Olsson is the owner of the St Helena Independent newspaper which, along with Saint FM radio station, I sponsor to ensure its editorial independence. He believes that improved banking facilities and obtaining a new fibre-optic cable link are essential to the island’s future prosperity. There are moves to ensure that a fibre-optic cable running from South Africa to Brazil, which would provide super-fast internet speeds and other benefits, can branch off to St Helena.

Mr Olsson also favours “residential tourism”, particularly from northern Europe, so that long-term visitors during the northern hemisphere’s winter would not be so dependent on the weekly flights. Such a move, with numerous tourists staying on the island for months rather than days, would, however, require a big increase in medical facilities for the elderly

During my visit, Governor Lisa Honan, who has been widely praised for improving SHG’s transparency, was off-island due to work commitments. However, I spoke with others who help to run the island and manage its economy.

With Lawson Henry

With Lawson Henry

Lawson Henry, who has been a St Helena councillor for five years, is a member of the five-strong island Cabinet and chairs the economic and development committee.

“St Helena has real potential to be a tourist destination,” he told me. “It is only a small island but the diversity of what we have to offer could make us a good tourist destination”

However, Councillor Henry was deeply critical of the decision to have the current airport “hub” – for flights to and from St Helena – in Johannesburg rather than Cape Town, where Saints have strong historic links and where tourists feel safer and keener to visit than crime-ridden Johannesburg. “We have to have a re-look at the hub and people have to be able to reach the island from different points of origin…If we don’t make these interventions, I think tourists will eventually stop coming.”

Councillor Henry added: “This has been a huge investment by the British taxpayer in this island and if the British Government doesn’t support us in doing some really fundamental other things, then it is not going to work.”

“There is a lot of frustration here on the island at this time…And there is a lot of pain in the community because of the state of our economy…There is a real lack of understanding of how a small isolated island has to operate.”

In recent years, St Helena has received around £30 million a year in Government subsidies from DFID but the ambition remains that, with a vibrant economy that includes a strong tourism sector, the island eventually moves towards self-sufficiency.

Dr Dawn Cranswick, who is Chief Executive for Economic Development, told me that it was “disappointing” to hear that entrepreneurs on and off the island had criticised the official support they received.

Little more than three months into her role, it would be unfair to expect her to come up with overnight solutions to problems that others have taken years or even decades to try to solve.

With Dr Dawn Cranswick

With Dr Dawn Cranswick

Dr Cranswick said: “I think that as time goes on all of us, including tourism businesses on and off the island, will develop a stronger knowledge and understanding about how unique, niche destinations such as St Helena emerge as tourism destinations.

“I think there is a lot of very good work that has been done already but of course there is more to do. We now have around 50 international tour operators marketing the island. One of the things we are learning is the time it takes for a tour operator to come to know a destination and get it into their plans.”

With Jonathan, the world’s oldest tortoise

Amid the disappointments and the criticisms, it should never be forgotten what an attractive destination St Helena is for the more adventurous traveller or how easy it is, once you have finally reached the island, to get around it and see the wonderful sights. St Helena offers an attractive climate, a rich history, stunning scenery, a unique wildlife, great walking, friendly locals and much more besides.

Longwood House

Longwood House

I broke off from my interviews for a couple of hours one afternoon to tour the island and remind myself of all it has to offer. I visited Longwood House, where Napoleon lived for six years. It is also the location where, aged just two, I fell into the goldfish pond fully clothed while I was with my parents en route to Nyasaland, now Malawi.

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder

I also visited Jacob’s Ladder where, during the same visit in 1948, my late father Eric, then a fit young man, carried me up all 699 steps that had been cut into the hillside by the military in 1829 so that ammunition and other supplies could be carried up the cliff.

Furthermore, I was invited to Plantation House, the Governor’s official residence, where I had an interesting off-the-record conversation with Acting Governor Louise MacMorran before seeing Jonathan, the giant Seychelles tortoise. At

186 years old, he is the oldest tortoise in the world and possibly the oldest land animal too.

I have no intention of investing in St Helena. My involvement is, by writing a lengthy blog and making a short film on my visit, to make a small contribution towards a greater understanding of the island’s problems and perhaps even to help find some solutions.

I hope that Saints and others will feel that my interviews with such a wide-range of islanders, rulers and investors leave me equipped to offer a few thoughts for others to ponder.

There is no doubt that insufficient research, including test flights, went into the airport before it was built but the island will never have a second airport so it now needs to make the most of what it has. My well-informed contacts tell me that “wind shear” and cross winds are not, in fact, the major problem.

Above the Airport runway

Above the Airport runway

Instead, with an airport built at nearly 1,000 feet, it is low cloud that is largely causing the flight delays. I am no aviation expert but DFID, as a matter of urgency, needs to provide the island, at whatever the cost, the best equipment to enable planes to land regularly whatever the cloud conditions.

St Helena’s infrastructure, particularly its costly and unreliable communications, needs to be improved as a matter of urgency and its leaders need to be more welcoming and supportive to both local entrepreneurs and major outside investors.

I encountered red-tape from the moment I arrived when immigration officials insisted on myself and my small team filling in arrival forms, as well as providing immediate proof of our departure flights and health insurance. Why not follow the South African example of, upon entry, only needing a compulsory passport and optional smile?

Furthermore, I believe there should be a completely independent, strategic review of the island with nothing deemed “off the table”, including the island’s relationship with the UK. Saints would probably not want to be fully independent of the UK nor fully integrated into the UK but everything needs to be assessed by experts who are devoid of any agenda.

Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, recently aired the possibility that a small number of senior overseas diplomatic posts could be filled by experienced businessmen or women.

Just days before I landed on St Helena, it was announced that the new governor of the island will be Dr Philip Rushbrook, who takes up his role in May.

I mean no disrespect to Dr Rushbrook but surely St Helena presented the perfect opportunity to put a business leader, rather than a career civil servant, in the role. It would have been a controversial move but it might well have been a bold and wise move too.

As I headed back to the airport by taxi at the end of my two-day visit, I felt sad that Saints have become so despondent about their uncertain future. Their savings are dwindling, their resilience is weakening and their dreams are fading. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions but this tightly-knit community, which will always have a special place in my heart, deserves better.

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