The remote British island hoping to see more visitors
By Anne Cassidy
St Helena, pictured here is its capital Jamestown, has remained free of coronavirus © SHG
Alasdair and Gill Maclean say they felt a bit guilty having spent much of the past year happily living on a beautiful, tropical island, untouched by Covid-19.
The English couple had been sailing around the world prior to the start of the pandemic, when they arrived at the British Overseas Territory Island of St Helena, in the middle of the south Atlantic.
“We had been due to leave 10-days later, and we ended up spending just over eight months,” says Mr Maclean.
He adds that he and his wife were conflicted about updating friends back in the UK about their good fortune. “How do you tell them you’re having a lovely time, freely going to restaurants, and partying when they’re all in lockdown?”
Located some 1,200 miles (2,000 km) west of the African nation of Angola, and 2,500 miles east of Brazil, St Helena has a population of around 4,500 people, and is 47 sq miles (121 sq km) in size. To put that into context, it has about the same landmass as Jersey in the Channel Islands.
St Helena’s claim to fame since March 2020, is that it remains one of only a handful of places on Planet Earth to have not reported a single case of coronavirus.
This meant that when the UK government introduced its Covid traffic light system back in May, for countries (and overseas territories) that people could visit, St Helena was always one of the few on the green list – meaning you wouldn’t have to quarantine upon your return.
The island hopes that this spotlight has encouraged more potential tourists to visit.
Matthew Joshua, the St Helena Government’s head of visitor information services, says this already appears to be the case. “We’re getting an increase in inquiries. It has put St Helena on the map.”
St Helena is part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, while South Georgia is the largest constituent of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
But how exactly do you get to St Helena? Prior to the opening of the island’s airport in 2016 the only way to reach the island was by sea.
Then for the first year of the airport’s operation it was unusable due to safety concerns about high winds over the approach to the runway. This led to the facility, which cost the UK government £285m, being dubbed “the world’s most useless” airport.
However, after a number of trial flights, the airport was eventually passed as safe to use, with the first commercial flights starting in October, 2017.
Mr Joshua says the issue got unfair press coverage. “We don’t have tropical storms like you do in the Caribbean, but there is wind.”
Before the pandemic, St Helena was served by weekly flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town. But these routes are still on hold due to coronavirus restrictions in South Africa.
Instead, St Helena is currently served by Titan Airways charter flights every three weeks to and from London Stansted Airport.
For many people, St Helena is best-known as the place where French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to, and where he died in 1821.
Visitors to the rocky, steep-sided island can see the house where he lived, which is now a museum. Other attractions include sea fishing, diving, hiking, the colonial era streets of the capital Jamestown, the warm weather, and exploring the fauna and flora – the island is home to more than 500 species of plants and animals not found anywhere else.
Back in 2019, St Helena had 5,135 overnight visitors, plus the odd day-visit by cruise ships. This number then fell to 2,071 in 2020, mostly before the end of March, and then down to 696 from January to July of this year.
Currently all visitors have to quarantine for 10 days.
The island has just two hotels, which remain closed. Sasha Ella, communications manager for the largest – Mantis St Helena Hotel – says that times have been tough, and they will only return to normal when the world puts coronavirus behind it.
“It is our feeling that when access and frequency of the flights to the island, and relaxation to the quarantine restrictions, take place, only then will a positive effect be felt on the island,” she says.
St Helena also has a number of private guest houses.
Another very remote, and Covid-19 free British island that was permanently on the UK government’s green list, is South Georgia. Located in the south Atlantic, some 800 miles south east of the Falkland Islands, it is 1,362 sq miles (3,528 sq km) in size.
Only accessible by sea, the island has no permanent human population. Instead there are two government officers, and two dozen or so staff from the British Antarctic Survey, the UK’s polar research institute.
Like St Helena, South Georgia is now waiting for tourists to return. Prior to the pandemic, it would be visited by cruise ships going to and from the coast of Antarctica.
In the summer of 2019/2020 (its summer is during winter in the UK) it had 12,568 visitors, but this fell to just two people in 2020/21.
“In a normal year, tourism accounts for around 20% of our income,” says Ross James, visitor management & bio-security officer for the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.
South Georgia offers dramatic, snowy vistas © Getty Images
The island has no overnight accommodation available for visitors, who instead only stay for a few hours, and have to follow strict rules during their visit designed to safeguard the natural habitat.
Prior to their arrival people are also encouraged to watch a video guide to the region, narrated by David Attenborough.
All cruise firms that travel to South Georgia are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Amanda Lynnes, the organisation’s director of environment & science coordination, has this advice for visitors: “Use your experience to be an ambassador for South Georgia’s continued protection.”
South Georgia has dramatic snow-topped mountains for visitors to see amid cold temperatures – even in its summer months it struggles to go above 6C.
By contrast, St Helena enjoys highs of 34C. Yet Mr Maclean says it is not just the pleasant weather that makes it special. “St Helena is up there as one of the friendliest communities in the world,” he says.