SEATTLE — Saint Helena is a U.K. territory in the southern Atlantic consisting of one large, isolated island. Saint Helena is a haven for endemic species and natural beauty. Like many other tropical paradises, the island is a hotspot for tourists. However, for the past few years, poverty in Saint Helena has been increasing at an alarming rate. Many cannot keep up with the cost of living on the island. But the government, also employer of the majority of the island, can only pay its citizens so much.
A reliance on imports makes the cost of living volatile. Another cost of living, electricity, is priced much higher than most countries due to economies of scale. The government claims this cost is competitive among islands of comparable size. Regardless, given the government is mainly funded by the U.K. and only given so much money, the high cost of living and low wages are creating a domino effect for poverty in Saint Helena.
Councilor Brian Isaac, of the island’s social and community development committee, said just two days before Christmas 2014 that many Saints would be “suffering in silence”, especially the elderly. Many have reverted back to the use of candles for lighting and paraffin gel for cooking fuel. This can be a health hazard when used in enclosed areas. A 2015 government report found that while 97 percent of households may have electricity to use for lighting, only 54 percent use electricity to cook with.
While tourism is the driving source of income for the island, its remoteness has always been an issue. The island is only accessible by a two-day boat trip from Ascension Island or a five-day boat trip from Cape Town, South Africa.
Luckily, there is hope for the poverty in Saint Helena, and it comes from the skies above. The SHG and many citizens agree that commercial air travel may be their savior. Air travel would allow tourism to flourish and reduce the cost of imports through lessening the cost of travel.
The island has been pursuing commercial air travel since October 1943. Since then, many organizations have come through Saint Helena discussing the feasibility of constructing an airport on the island. Sadly, all until 1999 have claimed it to be impossible. In 1999, the Saint Helena Leisure Corporation (SHELCO) proposed to the British government that it could build an airport, but only if given the right to operate its own tourist operations. The Department for International Development (DFID) eventually turned down this offer in fear of future risks of SHELCO’s involvement in politics.
By 2005, the governor of Saint Helena at the time, Michael Clancy, announced that the island was receiving funding from the DFID to build its very first airport. The U.K. halted funding in 2008 without reason. Many speculate that the financial crisis of 2007-2008 pushed the British government to make this decision. Finally, by 2011, after many ups and downs, the construction of the Saint Helena Airport commenced.
Recently, the airport was completed, but regular commercial air travel has not begun. A charter flight from Cape Town, South Africa successfully arrived with 60 passengers on May 3, 2017, marking the first flight to the new airport. The government is hopeful that this will be the beginning of a new chapter for Saint Helena.
– James Hardison