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St Helena reviews air service as tourism sector struggles

St Helena's government is to recruit a consultant to analyse the air services situation after tourism figures failed to meet local expectations following the opening of the UK territory's new airport.

Commercial operations at the airport started in mid-October 2017, with regional carrier Airlink conducting weekly services from South Africa. Seasonal mid-week frequencies, plus monthly charters to Ascension Island, have supplemented these flights.

But the low frequency poses "practical constraints" for passengers, says the government, particularly on occasions when flights are delayed – the flight cancellation rate, mainly the result of low cloud and fog, is about 8%.

Weather conditions on approach have been a concern since the airport opened, and the airport's operator is awaiting the findings of a landing aids optimisation review, due at the end of October.

Air service is crucial to meeting the territory's 10-year tourism and exports development plan to 2028. But while passenger arrivals of over 3,800 during 2018 were higher than the 2,075 predicted, the government acknowledges that promotional communications had mentioned figures of 30,000 – without emphasising that this was a long-term target.

"The number of tourists visiting the island was not as high as expected by the local population," it says, which means efforts to provide additional tourist accommodation have resulted in supply outstripping demand.

As a result, it states, night occupancy rates are low and the tourism accommodation sector is "struggling to break even". Accommodation prices are relatively high compared with other destinations, owing to high borrowing costs and overheads, and a third of bookings are made in cheap, self-catered accommodation.

Visitor numbers are influenced partly by air fares and accommodation costs, says the government, which is seeking a consultant to analyse the air service strategy for the island and the local tourism economy.

The consultant will be tasked with researching the future potential for "viable" air service options and assessing their impact on the tourism sector, says the formal tender document.

This work will include examining the current flight schedule and seasonality, determining peak travel times, and reviewing destinations to understand which routes – in South America, Africa and Europe – would be the most attractive and sustainable.

The tourism study would consider ways to attract visitors year-round and look at the benefits of "dual-centre" holidays, says the tender, pairing St Helena with Cape Town, Ascension Island, or locations in Namibia.

Any analysis will need to draw up a list of potential major and local carriers, taking into account the technical abilities of various aircraft types, including extended twin-engined operations, and the requirements for landing aids or fuel stops.

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