Tiny mid-Atlantic island of St Helena to become an accessible holiday destination

South Africans are busy developing infrastructure which will enable the tiny mid-Atlantic island of St Helena to be an accessible holiday destination – ending centuries of semi-isolation.

It was to St Helena that England banished Napoleon after the battle of Waterloo. There the deposed French emperor died.

At present St Helena, part of the British dependent territory which includes Ascension island and Tristan da Cunha, can only be reached by sea. Occasional cruise liners moor offshore and ferry passengers to the tiny jetty. The Royal Mail Ship St Helena links Cape Town, sometimes Walvis Bay, Ascension and, on occasion, Tristan da Cunha.

Now South African building contracting company Basil Read is constructing the island’s first airstrip, which has been designed to take international flights – opening the island up to serious tourism.

Another proposed development in the wings is the construction of a proper harbour – but there is an on-going debate about whether this is necessary once the airstrip is functional.

The island’s capital is Jamestown which sits in a steep valley surrounded by volcanic cliffs reaching down to the sea. Inland, the countryside is fertile and crops include the most expensive coffee in the world. The population has been dwindling and now totals little more than 4 000 “Saints”.

Although Napoleon is arguably St Helena’s most prominent resident, the island hosted another notable exile – Zulu King Cetshwayo. Also, some 5 000 Boer prisoners languished there during the Anglo-Boer war.

The Pam Golding Hospitality Division has been appointed by Enterprise St Helena to undertake an in-depth review of the island’s tourism potential and is being retained to provide ongoing consulting services.

The division’s CEO Joop Demes, argues that the occasional cruise ship ferrying in passengers for a day trip to Napoleon’s resting place is not the answer. ”The island needs tourists who spend time; who eat, sleep and enjoy the island’s leisure attributes.” Last year, he adds, the island could boast of only 813 international visitors.

These attributes, however, will have to be developed. Demes is enthusiastic about St Helena’s potential. “Sought after activities such as diving and deep sea fishing are world class and totally untouched,” he says. ”Sea safaris would be major attractions, watching whales and dolphins. The ocean surrounding St Helena teems with tuna, marlin, swordfish and other game fish. The establishment of diving facilities such as a decompression chamber would be invaluable as a tourist attraction.

“Moreover, there is ‘heritage’ tourism – one only has to consider the number of South Africans, black and white, with ancestor links to the island. Then there is what is called ‘voluntourism’, comprising young people doing their ‘gap year’.” And for the fitness fanatics there is Jacob’s Ladder, a steep 183 m climb from sea level in Jamestown to the top of Ladder Hill – all in all, 699 stone steps.

Enterprise St Helena has for years been busy attempting to catapult the island into a major tourist attraction, says Demes. Part of its projection is to build a 5-star hotel in the Broadlands area which would include a golf course and spa. There are also plans afoot to convert some of the old buildings along Jamestown’s main street and erect, among others, a 80-90 room 4-star hotel – which would greatly improve the capital’s somewhat limited room inventory..

Meanwhile back in South Africa, Demes reports that South Africa’s top-ranked hotels are showing remarkable resilience, having come through a difficult trading cycle between the final quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of last year. Occupancy levels, which reached a high point in 2007, have picked up again, as has REVPAR (revenue per available room).

Budget hotels, however, are being challenged, he says. “Too much discounting and too many ‘apartment’ hotels that were converted from residences into hotels in anticipation of the FIFIA World Cup™” he explains.
“Compared with the same trading period in 2011, the South African STR Global Hotel Review mid-year results reflect REVPAR growth of between 9.8% for 3-star hotels up to 12.6% for 5-star hotels. Furthermore, this year’s PriceWaterhouseCoopers Hospitality Outlook publication forecasts growth of 14.4% in 2012 REVPAR, while also predicting a compound 8.7% annual growth rate in REVPAR from 2012 to 2016.”

PGP’s Hospitality Division has had another busy year. It has engaged in almost 20 different hotel projects. So far there are 10 confirmed and tendered hotel projects in a number of countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania.

This, Demes points out, is a good time to buy hotels.

Source: Pam Golding Properties Intellectual Property Magazine

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