Building an international airport on St Helena was first mooted as far back as 1942, following development of the airstrip on Ascension. For many years it was deemed impossible, as St Helena’s hilly and rocky terrain means that there is virtually no flat land, and the lack of infrastructure along with high costs resulting from extreme logistical challenges combined to make the project appear a nonstarter.In the meantime, economic problems on the island were mounting. Lack of opportunity meant that more and more people were leaving the island, resulting in a diminishing and ageing population. In 2002, a referendum to the St Helenian people found in favour of an airport, and the following year, the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID) decided to investigate the possibility of a joint public–private partnership.
The site selected for the airport was Prosperous Bay Plain, arguably the only area that could reasonably incorporate a runway suitable for jet aircraft such as the Boeing 737-700. Nevertheless, the location posed some serious engineering challenges, prime among them being a valley – Dry Gut – that would have to be filled to give the requisite length for the runway, and a suitable safety margin. In the initial stages of tender, the St Helena Leisure Corporation (SHELCO), a consortium backed by the Indian Oberoi hotel group among others, put in a proposal to build an upmarket resort with hotels, golf courses, houses, etc, to partly finance the airport, and to run an airline. DFID then decided to seek other potential partners, resulting in a further four proposals being submitted. Despite this, these last three pulled out once they had evaluated the risks involved, but delays were incurred and costs were rising.
In 2008, in an apparent change of tack, the government announced that their preferred bidder was an Italian consortium, headed by Impregilo. Later that year, however, negotiations were put on hold as a result of the global recession. By 2009, costs were estimated to have risen to more than £200 million.
It was to be another two years before the contract was finally awarded, but at last, on 3 November 2011, the formalities were agreed with the South African company, Basil Read, one of the initial bidders for the project. On 14 November 2012, once the company was established on the island, work started to fill Dry Gut. Operating around the clock, six days a week, it took 22 months to fill the valley with 450,000 truckloads of material. Attention then turned to the runway, the terminal buildings, and airport logistics. As St Helena looks forward to the arrival of its first passenger plane in 2016, the die is cast.
The cost to the British taxpayer of the first phase of the airport, including a permanent wharf at Rupert’s Bay, is estimated to be on budget at nearly £201 million, or roughly the equivalent of ten years’ subsidy. Following completion, Basil Read will retain the contract to operate the airport for ten years, subsidised by the British government, but the long-term aim, based on
economic growth through tourist development, is for the island to become entirely self-sufficient.
While many Saints are sceptical about the impact of the airport, others are more sanguine, and some are already taking advantage of the increased business potential. Inevitably, though, it’s not all good news. Environmentally, although it is incumbent on Basil Read to restore the habitat around the airport, and there is no doubt that this is being taken seriously, there are concerns about its impact on St Helena’s already fragile ecosystem. The loss of ‘their’ ship is a hard blow to many St Helenians, and along with this will be a consequent loss of jobs, although new opportunities may well offset this. There are also fears that property prices will rocket as wealthy visitors buy or build their place in the sun. But perhaps of greatest concern to many is that the island will lose some of its alluring qualities as a unique destination while their gentle pace of life will be destroyed forever.