St Helena: New airport, new challenges

Runway - Almost complete

These days it is unusual to start a journey and not know the time, or even day, you will arrive at your destination. In fact there are very few trips you can take where that might happen. Soon there will be one less.

The journey on the RMS St. Helena from Cape Town to the British overseas territory of St. Helena starts that way. On leaving port we are informed that the journey will take six days, and as time progresses the date and time of arrival becomes more precise, depending on the wind and waves. Until the first airport on the island opens next year, the ship is the only link to the island.

One of the enduring appeals of the RMS St Helena is that it is the last working Royal Mail Ship in operation. All 110 passengers on board are travelling home, to work, or to visit the island. This isn’t a ship designed, built and sailing for the pure pleasure of cruising itself. This ship has a job to do.

However, it’s about to lose its job. The long awaited airport on St. Helena is expected to open in February 2016 – in less than 12 months time. The RMS St. Helena, which has been the lifeline for the island for so long, will then be decommissioned.

Until now, when travel writers and journalists write about the island of St. Helena, much is made of the long journey on board the RMS, as the ship is affectionately known. The island, as such, has effectively become a fly-cruise (or just cruise for the South African market) destination. For most visitors, more time is spent on board the RMS than on the island itself. As a tourist, by the time you first set sights on the Island in the 6th day, looming staggering large on the horizon, it has achieved almost mythical status. Passengers have spent days reading about it, watching videos, and hearing stories told by the Saints travelling back home. Disembarking the RMS onto dry land gives the tourist a feeling of arrival at somewhere very special, and there is also a strong sense of discovery.

This counts for a lot in today’s marketplace where destinations fight for the attention of potential tourists, all trying to distinguish themselves from other destinations, and offer something different, new or exciting. And this is why I’m here – to help St. Helena Tourism with their branding of the island.

Research that we undertook earlier this year showed that long haul travellers demonstrated a high level of recognition of St. Helena as a destination, however there was considerable uncertainty regarding where it lay. 15% thought it was in the English Channel and 20% in the Mediterranean. Only around one-third could place it in the South Atlantic. There was also uncertainty over what it offered as a destination, with one-half choosing beaches as its prime attraction. There are no beaches of note on the Island.

The airport runway is almost complete – just another 400 meters of concrete to pour, and work is pressing ahead to complete the terminal building and control tower. In July a test flight will arrive on the island to ensure that the landing systems are calibrated properly. Comair, the British Airways subsidiary, has been selected as the airline that will initially connect the island to the rest of the world, flying weekly between Johannesburg and St. Helena in just over four hours.

No longer will it be primarily a destination for retired people, with the combined time of the journey on the RMS and a week on the island necessitating a holiday of at least three weeks. It will become more accessible to everyone.

Consequently, there is much to be done to prepare for a more regular influx of tourists (at present the RMS visits the Island approximately every 3-4 weeks with around 120 passengers on board). Accommodation, restaurants, cafes, and transport are just some of the services that tourists will require in greater quantities then ever before.

However, and possibly most significantly, there will be new expectations of St. Helena as a destination. In just over 4 hours the tourist will have flown from South Africa to the Island. No time to adjust, reflect, read, and prepare for arrival as they do at the moment. This is likely to make visitors more demanding and less forgiving. They will start to lose sight of the remoteness and challenges an island 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa and 1,800 miles from Brazil faces.

Today, very few tourists leave St. Helena disappointed, but this may change once tourists start arriving by air. St. Helena then runs the risk of over-promising and under-delivering, and this will lead to some tourists returning home and not passing on in a positive way that most effective form of marketing – word of mouth.

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