A big drop in tourist numbers on St Helena has been blamed partly on last year’s sudden cut in spaces on RAF flights.
Efforts are being made to restore the island’s allocation of seats on the “airbridge” between Ascension and RAF Brize Norton in the UK.
In the meantime, there’s uncertainty over the future frequency of Ascension shuttle trips by the RMS St Helena.
Julian Morris, head of economic development on St Helena, admitted to the island’s Tourism Association that visitor numbers had dropped significantly.
“They’re down very substantially from April this year,” he said. “Last year was good, but this year they’re down.
“There are many reasons why visitor numbers are down: the Rand weakening by about 20%; the cut in airbridge seats from 26 to ten has had a very marked effect; the [RMS] schedule not being published further in advance.
“Six months ago we wanted to publish it, and then the airbridge was cut,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get the airbridge seats back up, but not wanting to extend the schedule.”
With so few passengers able to travel to or from the island via Ascension, it has become less viable to maintain the frequency of the 700-mile shipping run between Jamestown and Georgetown.
“So there’s a real dilemma that we’ve been wrestling with,” said Julian – who has now joined the board of St Helena Line, which manages the schedule. “We don’t want to cut calls to Ascension, but if we can’t get the airbridge seats up, then we’re going to have to cut those calls.”
He said not all the problems lay outside the island’s control. “I think in terms of sales and marketing, it’s been done not as well as it should be by a long chalk, and we need to put our hands up and say, sales and marketing has been not up to snuff.
“I became a member of the board in March and I formed a group to look at this.
“We’re doing a number of things. People have seen reductions in fares – very tough to do short term – increased advertising, looking to put together tours, much increased PR.”
Julian said a lot of work was being done on the 2012 yacht race from The Cape to St Helena – now set to be the biggest yet.
“We’ve put a lot more effort into the Governor’s Cup, which we see as a great event. Enterprise St Helena is doing a lot more with that.
“We’re supporting the yacht club a lot more, we’re doing a lot more marketing, we’re doing some specialist press, we’re making the activities of the week a lot better.
“It’s going to bring 300 people to the island. They are probably, at this moment in time, our highest priority and best customer group.
“We need to ramp up numbers. I’m embarrassed sitting here with the way the numbers have gone. We need to turn that around.”