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.


Why technology is challenging the way we measure tourism in Africa


I’ve just arrived in Lesotho to help improve the accuracy of tourist arrivals statistics.  Like most other countries in Africa, there is considerable cross-border traffic in Lesotho, a country that is completely surrounded by South Africa.

Consequently the main problems faced when measuring tourist arrivals is identifying who they are (we need to exclude regular border crossers and returning residents), and also dealing with the sheer volume of people arriving at the border posts.

This latter point is usually the deal breaker when trying to accurately measure tourist arrivals in African countries.  For each arrival (and there can be hundreds of thousands each year) we need, at the very least, to capture their country of residence and purpose of visit – two attributes that are essential for measuring and understanding tourism, and two attributes that are not coded into the traveller’s passport.

Here lies the root of the problem – computerisation of border posts in African countries is starting to become more commonplace, and to speed things up, some countries have implemented a system whereby immigration officials scan the traveller’s passport, stamp it, and then grant entry (assuming all is in order) to the person.

South Africa is a good example of this – when you arrive at a border post in South Africa, no one asks your purpose of visit or country of residence, and therefore in the absence of a large sample passenger survey (such as those undertaken in European countries to measure tourism, due to the open borders prevalent across most of the continent) it is not possible to measure tourism accurately.

Here in Lesotho, our goal is to ensure that immigration officials at the border posts not only electronically capture some useful data that is encoded into the passport of each traveller (age, gender and nationality), but also to ask each arrival what their purpose of visit, country of residence and intended length of stay is, so that these three pieces of data can be added to the record stored on the computer.

If that can be achieved, then the computerisation of border posts can be a very positive change.  It means that data are available almost immediately, and information on the number of tourists, where they come from and what they are doing, is much more useful.

Here in Lesotho (thanks to the World Bank Private Sector Competitiveness Project) we are going to load this information into an online database that will, through a web interface, enable the sharing of these statistics so that they can be accessed by hotels, attractions, and potential investors, as well as the government for planning, marketing and monitoring the sector.

And that should make a big difference.

Kiribati: Big fish, nice people…


Over the last few days I’ve been in Kiribati, a collection of 33 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator.

The country comprises three island groups of the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands.  The nation’s capital, Tawara (where I am), is located in the Gilbert Islands in the west, whilst Christmas Island (or Kiritimati) is found in the Line Islands in the Far East.  Kiribati is the only country in the world that is situated in all four of the earth’s nominal hemispheres, northern, southern, eastern and western.

In 1994 the International Date Line, which separated the western and eastern island groups by 23 hours, was moved in order to make a more convenient two-hour difference between the Gilbert Islands and the other two groups.  On 31 December 2000, Kiribati was the first country in the world to see in the third millennium and Caroline Island was renamed Millennium Island to celebrate the occasion.

According to data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Kiribati is the second least visited country in the world (bottom of the pile is neighbouring Tuvalu).  In total, all the islands in Kiribati welcome around 5,000 inbound visitors a year.

Consequently, it seems like an odd place to be undertaking a visitor survey!  We commenced this in April 2013, in both Tarawa, which is characterised by business and VFR (visiting friends and relatives) visitors, and Kiritimati, which tends to attract leisure tourists for fishing.

Despite the low volume of tourism in Kiribati, it is a very important sector, supporting the local economy and the population of around 100,000.  Overall, the survey found that tourists spend approaching AUS$ 11 million a year (around £5.5 million) when in Kiribati.

However, the survey wasn’t all about expenditure.  Visitor surveys generate some of their most useful content from open questions that are often asked towards the end of the interview.  In Kiribati, we asked visitors what were the highlights and disappointments of their trip, as well as how they thought tourism could be improved. 

Many of these comments provide a gold mine of information for developing tourism in the country, and I hope the relevant authorities use them to improve their product and market tourism more successfully.  There is considerable potential in Kiribati, especially in an age when tourists are seeking new and exciting destinations so they limit their chances of running into other tourists!  Indeed, the strapline that Kiribati uses is “…for travellers, not tourists”.  It is a good one, as it suitably aligns visitor expectations with what they find when arriving on the various islands. 

If Kiritimati (Christmas Island), famous for its bone fishing, is ever looking for its own strapline, then the survey captured a comment from one visitor that would work perfectly: “Big fish, nice people!”

Can Cruising Shape Overnight Tourism?

This week I’m in the Cook Islands, arguably one of the most beautiful places in the South Pacific.  15 islands make up the Cook Islands, but the two most visited are Rarotonga and Aitutaki.  They complement each other well as they are very different.  Rarotonga is mountainous with impressive peaks, lush with vegetation, whilst Aitutaki is a low-lying coral atoll with one of the most picturesque lagoons in the Pacific.

We are here starting a cruise survey, which will run for the next five months, in both Rarotonga and Aitutaki.  Not all cruise ships stop at both destinations, some just go to Rarotonga, but it will be interesting to see what the different findings are between the two destinations.

One of the challenges cruise destinations face is distinguishing themselves from other destinations where cruise ships also stop at.  If visitors remember a specific destination, they are more likely to talk about it with their friends and relatives when they get home, and more likely to come back to visit as a (potentially) more lucrative land-based overnight tourist.

We have recently completed a similar survey in Vanuatu, interviewing in the capital Port Vila, and a small island called Mystery Island, which is little more than a very picturesque sand bank right in the south of the group of islands that make up Vanua

The findings from the survey showed that whilst visitors spent a lot less on Mystery Island (which wasn’t a surprise as there is less to spend your money on there), their levels of satisfaction were much higher than in Port Vila.  It is clear that Mystery Island provides a much better advert for Vanuatu than the bustling Port Vila, where the scramble to make money from cruise visitors is highly evident.

This raises an interesting discussion, for which I don’t at present have the answer.  Might it be better to develop cruisedestinations that provide entertainment and a relaxing atmosphere for visitors at the expense of trying to make as much money as possible, thereby leaving them with the greatest desire to return as a much more lucrative overnight visitor?

Cruising in the South Pacific, in particular on cruise ships from Australia, has grown rapidly over the last few years.  It could be the ideal catalyst for growing the overnight tourism sector as well.  But destinations that leave the best lasting impression on cruise visitors will surely benefit the most.


Grading Accommodation in the Falkland Islands

ImageFor the last two weeks I’ve been in the Falkland Islands, grading serviced and self-catering accommodation for their new accreditation scheme.  In simple words: dishing out stars…one, two, three, four or five, based on a set of criteria.

Following some fairly useful discussions with hotels, lodges, guest houses and ownersof self-catering houses earlier in the year, we established a set of guidelines that we hoped would work for the Falklands, where the environment is considerably more harsh than here in the UK, and supplies of food, in fact anything, are harder to come by.  Allowances had to be made.

Nevertheless, the grading had to sit well within international standards.  There’s no point in developing a scheme that works in isolation to the rest of the world.  A tourist booking a 4 star hotel in the Falkland Islands will expect it to be broadly in line with his or her understanding of what they would expect in a 4 star hotel in, say, Newcastle.

That was the core principal behind the establishment of this scheme – to align international visitor expectations with what they actually get when they stay in the Islands.  Over-promising and under-delivering only leads to unhappy tourists who are unlikely to return, or worse still, spread the word that the destination isn’t worth visiting.

Using the scheme to encourage accommodation establishments to improve their services and facilities was only a secondary reason for the scheme, but nonetheless an important one too.

Typically, with these schemes, an inspector grading an accommodation establishment would turn up, and check in incognito, as a regular paying guest.  They would undertake the inspection, and only reveal their identity at the end of their stay in order to discuss their findings and gain access to other parts of the property that they would not be able to see as a normal guest (such as other bedrooms and the kitchen).

This procedure is completely out of the question in the Falkland Islands, where most people know who is on their way before they even cross the equator, on the long airbridge flight from Brize Norton, and where the names of passengers travelling on internal flights are read out on the radio the night before!  So this scheme had to be implemented in an open way.

Fortunately this worked in the Falklands.  I would say without exception, no one put on a display for me.  Everyone was very honest about their property, and on the whole were delighted to receive suggestions about how they could improve.  And in most cases the evaluation awarded their property with a higher grade than they expected.

It’s like all data collection.  Be open, tell people what you are going to use the information for and how it will help them, and you are 90% of the way there.

The Secret to Successful Data Collection…in Denmark


I’m in Denmark for the week, introducing a number of coastal towns to T-Stats.  It’s all part of a project to develop seaside towns in the country, and my remit is to provide a solution that will allow each town to measure and track tourism at the local level.

The situation here is very similar to that in England, VisitDenmark (like VisitEngland) commissions a nationwide accommodation occupancy survey, and there is also an annual attractions survey.  However, whilst these are useful for generating a picture of tourism at the national, and even regional level, they are of little use at the local level.

One issue is that the number of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and other types of accommodation that report their statistics is too small in these surveys to provide meaningful information at the local level.  Another issue, possibly more pertinent, is the lack of immediacy in the national survey data.  It takes too long for the data to be released, and so by the time it is, the moment has passed.  It no longer has the significance or usefulness that it would have had if it had been published a month after it was collected.

What we are doing in Denmark is holding meetings at each town that is part of the coastal tourism project.  Owners or managers of accommodation establishments and attractions are invited to attend, and the online database system is explained to them: how they enter data, how they can track their own performance on it, and how they can compare themselves with their peers.

The overall success of this is, of course, dependant on their buy-in to the system, as without their data the database is merely an empty structure.

So, do they buy-in?

Well, most of the time, yes, they do.  And the reason for this is what makes local-level data collection so much more appealing than that at the national level.  The local tourism administration usually has close ties with the hotels, bed and breakfasts, attractions, and so on.  Consequently they are best placed to persuade them to divulge their data.  In turn, the owners and managers are more likely to trust the organisation collecting the data, and therefore more readily provide it. 

And above all, the accommodation establishments and attractions are most likely to appreciate the benefits that this local level information could have on their businesses, as it provides vital information for planning, marketing and promoting the sector. 

And that’s why collecting data at the local level is king!

Putting on a Show for Cruise Visitors in Tonga

I’m in Tonga this week launching a cruise visitor survey.  It’s turning out to be a very refreshing experience.

Unlike the boom cruise destinations in the South Pacific of New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji, Tonga only receives around 16 cruise vessels each year.  Its distance from Australia (in particular, and less so New Zealand) means that it’s out of reach of the short (less than 10 day) cruises that are becoming so popular in those countries.

Consequently cruise passengers are valued here, and appreciated more than they are in many of the busier destinations.  To maximise the experience of visitors, the key stakeholders in Tonga have set up a Cruise Committee to coordinate music and dancing to welcome the visitors, tours, transport and shopping experiences. Educating local people on how to deal with visitors is also part of the scheme.

The arrival of the Sea Princess yesterday, carrying almost 2,000 passengers, was the first test of this new strategy.  My part of the proceedings was to organise a team of eight interviewers at the wharf to find out Tonga had fared.

It seems like all the hard work paid off.  The survey showed that almost one third of all visitors would like to return to Tonga for a land-based holiday.  Cruise passengers returning for a longer holiday is a great marketing spin-off from cruising. And expenditure was mainly on local handicrafts and tours, so the local economy stands to benefit with few leakages.

Cruise itineraries tend to be characterised by visits to destinations that are (on the face of it) quite similar, in particular Pacific and Caribbean cruises. So standing out by going that extra mile for visitors is important. The destinations that the cruise passengers remember when they get home will be the ones most likely to benefit from future visits, and also referrals to friends and relatives.