Ascension : BUSINESS NEWS FROM St. HELENA
Submitted by The Islander (Gavin Yon) 17.11.2005 (Article Archived on 01.12.2005)
BRITAIN is to spend £80m from its overseas aid budget to build an airport for wealthy tourists on the island of St Helena, one of its last colonial relics.
The Sunday Times: November 13, 2005
Britain spends millions on tourist airport
Jonathan Leake, Environment Editor
BRITAIN is to spend £80m from its overseas aid budget to build an airport for wealthy tourists on the island of St Helena, one of its last colonial relics. The money will come from the Department for International Development which oversees African poverty relief.
The decision has angered anti-poverty campaigners. Max Lawson, policy adviser for Oxfam, said: “(It) is enough to put more than 2m children right the way through primary school in most of Africa.”
The airport is intended to help St Helena — the tiny south Atlantic colony where Napoleon spent his last six years in exile — become a chic resort with five-star hotels, a golf course, extensive gardens and other upmarket attractions. At present it takes a week to reach the island by sea. The decision comes after Tony Blair’s pledges on African poverty at this summer’s G8 summit and Bob Geldof’s Live 8 concerts.
Campaigners say the cost is disproportionate when there are only 3,500 people on the island. The £14m annual payout that the St Helenians already get makes them one of the most heavily subsidised communities in the world. Romilly Greenhill, of ActionAid UK, said: “Too much aid money goes to projects like this which benefit British firms and interests but do little to alleviate poverty.”
St Helena, about half the size of the Isle of Wight, is 700 miles from the nearest land. Its 3,000ft volcanic peaks make it unsuitable for agriculture or industry, but Britain colonised it almost 350 years ago as a staging post for shipping. Nowadays many boats and cruise ships are deterred by the lack of an adequate harbour.
Even the island’s supply vessel, the RMS St Helena, Britain’s last royal mail ship, will be taken out of service in 2010. Many islanders leave in search of work. In the past 20 years the population has plummeted from more than 6,000. Recently the St Helena government warned Britain that the island’s community would soon wither away unless it got a harbour or an airport. That warning coincided with a proposal by British investors to turn the island into a luxury resort.
A DfID spokesman said the airport money came from a separate budget for overseas dependencies and so would not mean less cash to fight poverty. Gareth Thomas, the junior minister responsible for St Helena, said the airport was a good investment. “Tourism will bring prosperity and jobs.”
On St Helena opinion is divided. Some fear that the island is making a mistake committing itself to air tourism when unpredictable oil prices could make flying far more expensive. They say that a proper harbour, at a cost of about £20m, would be a better long-term investment. The airport would involve concreting over land previously protected for its unique wildlife. The 420-acre hotel and golf complex proposed by the St Helena Leisure Corporation (Shelco) would cover up to 15% of the green belt.
One of the leading investors in Shelco is Sir Nigel Thompson, chairman of the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England. “Currently the land is scrub. We would build an eco-hotel and recycle everything that we could while replanting the grounds with native species,” he said.
However, Les Baldwin, a London accountant who married a St Helenian woman and emigrated there five years ago, said: “The St Helenians are inviting international hotels and businessmen to run the place hoping that they will get richer. History suggests they are being naive.”
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said the government’s airport plan was “ridiculous”.
Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd