Airport ‘non-story’ is worth many thousands, says tourism chief

Gloomy stories about St Helena are great news for the island – because they come with beautiful pictures that pull in potential visitors all round the world, writes director of tourism CHRIS PICKARD.

 

The UK’s Independent newspaper recently ran an article suggesting that the first flights to St Helena, and the opening of the airport, had been delayed. The article, subsequently picked up by the Mail, was something of a non-story: a cut-and-paste job that took a series of random quotes, many out of context, and then came up with the result that 2+2=5.

Negative reporting of tourism and infrastructure projects is nothing new for me. But if asked as director of tourism for St Helena if I was happy to see the stories about the airport in print in the UK, I would have to say Yes.

Between them they created hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of positive publicity for St Helena as a destination and brought the island to the attention of many potential visitors, thanks to the images used.

It is very important to take St Helena out of the tourism pages and in to the main news sections of the media. That is what helps to promote and develop a destination.

So while I am delighted with all the positive coverage the island has generated recently in the travel sections of the international media, I am even happier when I see St Helena being covered in the other news pages and sections of the media. But I am experienced enough to know that these will not always be 100% positive.

An example of non-tourism coverage is the recent stories about Jonathan, which generated a lot of interest in people wanting to come to the island, as did reports on new species being found.

While I did not agree with everything he wrote, Matthew Engel’s cover story in the Financial Times’ weekend magazine also generated many hundreds of thousands pounds’ worth of positive publicity.

And not just in the UK: I got feedback from North and South America, Australia, and across Europe from people who, having read the FT piece, wanted to come to St Helena or set up tours to the island.

The result of all this coverage has been that people in the right circles are talking positively about St Helena in terms of helping to contribute to building a sustainable tourism industry.

Sadly for the island, St Helena Tourism is already having to turn away business or put it on hold, but that has nothing to do with the airport or air access and when it starts, but is down to not having a sufficient amount of the right type of accommodation that tour operators demand. But that is something we are working to resolve.

International tour operators, many of which I have worked with over the years, have been contacting us to get information about what St Helena has to offer, and most are now putting together one week packages to the island. They know me well enough to be sure that when St Helena is ready for them, and the flights have started, I will let them know.

We all work on facts, not fiction or speculation.

What people on St Helena will need to understand, however, is that like it or not we are now playing on the global stage, and global tourism is extremely competitive. St Helena – as I know from the conversations I have had with other tourism directors who are jealous of the media attention we have been generating – is firmly on the radar and that means there will be people looking to knock us down.

It also means that the media will be interested in writing news stories about the island, both good and bad, and that is because we are now news and the readers are interested. That is how I like it.

Far more negative is likely to be the coverage on Trip Advisor and other review sites as the visitors themselves – not the media – judge what we have to offer and the service levels behind it. Saints and others working in travel and tourism on the island will have to develop a thick skin.

As crazy as it may seem, my job is to make the St Helena Tourism strapline of “Secret of the South Atlantic” redundant, and if that means putting my hand up and apologising to the Saints who for personal or business reasons wish to keep the island a secret, so be it.

2015 was a record year for St Helena is terms of international visitors, and that is before the airport opens. So there are lots of positive things to look forward to in terms of tourism and what it can bring to the island.

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