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St. Helena Island


Environment

Formed about 14 million years ago and inactive since about seven million, St. Helena is stony and harsh on the outside and lush on the inside.

The South Atlantic High Pressure Cell, Equatorial Trough and South East Trade Winds keep St. Helena’s climate mild. Extreme elevation changes also create microclimates on the island, so the weather is different minute to minute and district to district.

As far back as Charles Darwin’s visit to the volcanic island in 1836, the flora, fauna and geology of the island have fascinated scientists.

As of 2014, the island was home to a third of the endemic species found on British territory. (St. Helena Online.) 502 species exist on St. Helena which exist nowhere else on the planet. (BBC.)

The island is also now leading the world in whale shark research and producing the world’s cleanest honey.

Unfortunately, the island is struggling to implement recycling, green sewage disposal and other sustainable initiatives.


Politics

Colonialism is not only apparent in the history of this island, but is very alive today: British workers on contract to the island earn tens of thousands per year more than the average islander.

The island has no freedom of information, and no data protection.

The St. Helena Government is funded by DfID, so some of the island’s decisions come straight from the UK. Some of the on-island councilmembers are elected, while some are appointed by the British government. It is not always clear, even to council members, who has power over which decisions on the island.

The island’s government website says the government is composed of Corporate Services, Education and Employment, Health Directorate, Environmental Services, Police, Air Access and (12) Councillors.

The island has some of the highest living costs and the lowest pay, and survives almost entirely off of UK subsidies.

The island planned to boost its tourism industry to revitalize its economy, but the UK’s St. Helena Airport Project has so far not provided commercial passenger flights, leaving the island difficult for tourists to access.

History

Sitting 1,200 miles from southwest Africa and 1,800 miles from South America, St. Helena Island, South Atlantic Ocean is one of the most remote places on earth. The volcanic island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502; after a brief ownership by the Dutch beginning in 1633, St. Helena became British in 1659 and remains a British Overseas Territory today (although citizenship was revoked in the British Nationality Act 1981, then regained in 2002).

For centuries, the island served as a vital stopover for the East India Trading Company and the British Empire. In the 19th century, St. Helena played a vital role in African slave liberation. The island has also been used as a place of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte, Dinizulu kaCetshwayo and over 6,000 Boer prisoners. (St. Helena Tourism)

Additionally, the island has histories with Charles Darwin, astronomer Edmond Halley and English royalty. (St. Helena Tourism)

Jamestown, the island’s capital, is a well-preserved colonial town and is home to the Southern Hemisphere’s oldest Anglican church.

St. Helena has, in recent history, begun moving away from its shipping tradition with the construction of the island’s first airport, has introduced cell phones and is opening itself up to increased tourism. It is also a relatively-untapped market for scientific and sociological research.


Culture and Cuisine

"St. Helenians, also known as 'Saints', are known for their friendliness – everyone waves and greets each other, even to passing cars.” (St. Helena Tourism)

St. Helena’s community is so tight-knit it has one of the lowest homelessness rates in the world.

The cuisine on St. Helena is based on the sea and on imports. The diabetes rate is high, as rice, pasta and bread are staples. However, tuna, wahoo, bullseye and other fish are common on the island, and specialties like conger eel, fishcakes and St. Helena coffee are gaining attention worldwide. St. Helenian food is influenced by Malay, British and Asian cuisines and typically uses spice. (St. Helena Tourism)


Media

The media climate on St. Helena is unique in the first world.

Lord Ashcroft, a wealthy British conservative, owns one of the island’s only two media organizations, which consists of The Independent and Saint FM Community Radio. The other media organization, South Atlantic Media Services, is government-funded and consists of The Sentinel newspaper and three SAMS radio stations (the organization recently announced closure, only to reopen).

The two newspapers look nearly identical and consist of nearly identical coverages, although writing styles between the papers differ (St. Helenians Darrin and Sharon Henry provide alternative news on What the Saints Did Next). The Sentinel is released every Thursday and printed copies cost one pound. The Independent, which also costs a pound, is released each Friday. Both papers are available in PDF form online for free.

Some Saints feel the on-island media doesn’t do a good job discovering or raising issues. Therefore, many issues on the island go undiscussed and unresolved.

The international press don’t typically pay attention to the successes or failures of St. Helena, except in extreme cases like the St. Helena Airport Project and the Wass Report.

RMS/Airport

The RMS St. Helena, the world’s last working Royal Mail Ship, is currently the only commercial passenger transport to and from St. Helena. She takes five days from Cape Town, and two and a half days from Ascension Island (from where you catch a Royal Air Force flight to the UK). The island has only ever been accessible by ship - until the new airport partially opened in 2016.

If you hope to take a voyage on the RMS, you’ve only got until Febuary 2018… So far. (The ship has already been decommissioned - in June 2016 and July 2017 - and then recommissioned twice.)

The St. Helena airport has gained international attention for its failure to open to commercial passenger flights - although it can handle smaller planes, like private flights and medivac flights - due to windshear issues.

The RMS schedule and ticket prices are available online, but no information about potential commercial flights to St. Helena is yet available.

Tenders for air access at the St. Helena Airport are expected to be announced at the end of May, but flights may not start until later in the year. When commercial flights do begin, the island will enter a new era of globalization and will lose its centuries-old shipping tradition.

Tourism

If you love diving, stunning and difficult hikes or unique history, St. Helena has a lot to offer.

Over the last five years, St. Helena has seen an average of 6,524 tourists (2,784 by the RMS) per year.

St. Helena’s economy is now relying on tourism numbers as UK subsidies are gradually removed.

But can the island handle tourism? One hotel is under construction - the island otherwise has only bed and breakfasts and individual places to rent. There are few handicapped facilities on the island, and a 24-hour taxi service has only just begun operation.

As a 2016 Financial Times article said, “There are just 150 tourist beds on St Helena but the number of visitors is projected to increase to 29,208 in just over 20 years’ time.”

When the UK’s DfID began the St. Helena Airport Project, consultants W S Atkins predicted the airport would be profitable from year one (originally 2012). But, according to head of tourism Christopher Pickard, 3,500 tourists (by plane) is a realistic estimate for the first year of the airport’s operation - about the same as the island sees with no airport.