Efforts to create the Wirebird Hills eco resort on St Helena could collapse unless the island secures a direct air link with Europe, it has emerged.
Linda Houston of developer Shelco has made it clear the project cannot succeed if the island can only be reached via South Africa.
Talks with the Department for International Development on possible routes were progressing well, she told Saint FM, but investors were insisting on direct flights from Europe.
She also revealed that on-site construction of “the world’s greenest hotel” at Broad Bottom had been put back a year, from April 2013.
She said the delay would allow time to address “other issues” – with the negotiations on flights taking priority. A switch to pre-fabricated construction meant it would take less time to complete and could still open by late 2016, as planned.
Linda cited losses suffered by potential partner Oberoi on another island that could not be reached directly from Europe.
“It is essential,” she said. “Our clients are what’s called time poor. They might be quite wealthy but they have not got a lot of time on their hands. They don’t want to change planes in Johannesburg or Cape Town.”
Enterprise St Helena has targeted South Africa as the prime market for attracting visitors, but Linda said only eight per cent of Wirebird Hills guests were expected to come from that direction.
Ten times as many were likely to come from Europe – nearly half from the UK. A fifth would come from France, thanks to the Napoleonic connection.
DFID is understood to be open to all possibilities, including direct flights from the UK with a refuelling stop somewhere such as the Cape Verde islands.
It had been reported that it was only looking at flights from South Africa, with a possible service for Ascension.
Linda made no mention of Shelco commissioning its own air service – a possibility that had been aired in the past.
She said: “Our business model is based on a direct, one-technical-stop air service from Europe, which is essential for high-value, low-volume tourism.
“Our investors will want to be satisfied this will be in place and we are looking for some degree of certainty in the early years.
“We are not looking for an exclusive route, but rather a package which includes flights from Europe but also flights from Cape Town for the dual-centre holiday idea, which clearly there is a market for.
“The decision is that of DFID, St Helena Government and Enterprise St Helena. We are a major investor and we want to be sure that our views are heard.”
She added: “We are working very well together with all those parties – we have an excellent working relationship.”
It was widely believed at one time that long-haul flights would not be possible because a shortened runway had been commissioned at Prosperous Bay Plain.
Linda said: “Non-stop means flying all the way – for example, flying from London Gatwick all the way to St Helena. We know that’s not practical: we have not got the right airstrip.
“Direct means on the same plane all the way, but with a technical stop which could be for for refuelling or picking up other passengers.
“One operater we have been talking to is talking about an extra stop at Madrid. That allows for flights coming in from the US and France, and other parts of Europe.
“From other parts of the world, people would want to fly in via the Cape.
“This isn’t just a question of customers who want to fly in a particular way. There is a direct commercial impact between a direct flight and a change-plane.”
The point has been highlighted in talks with the Oberoi group, which Shelco hopes will take on the running of the 88-suite hotel at Wirebird Hills. Shelco’s architect, Jeremy Blake, is due to make a second visit to Oberoi in Delhi before the end of 2012.
“They have a five-star hotel in Mauritius which has direct air access,” said Linda. “Occupancy levels are 85 per cent. That is highly profitable.
“Another hotel, which is six-star, is in Indonesia on an island called Lombok. They had believed there was going to be direct air services but in the end they didn’t materialise.
“As a result, occupancy is 40 per cent and room rates are down. That is a loss-making venture. That is not the kind of thing you are looking for.”
She said a mix of flight destinations would be good for the island, as well as for Shelco.
“We are very keen to see a mix of routes that give our clients a direct route from Europe that will provide Saints with what we believe they want, and develop the island economy.
“We all will be looking for freight by air as well as by sea and we would expect some of those goods to be flown in from the Cape, not all the way from the UK.
“The link to Ascension, given the number of Saints working there and relatively short distance, I hope that can be included in the mix as well.”
There also appears to be wariness about the number of visitors the island is likely to attract. The UK government says it expects 30,000 a year once the airport is fully operational.
Linda said: “Investors are looking for an independent study to verify projected numbers of visitors. This is being co-ordinated by Enterprise St Helena and we are looking forward to seeing the results, hopefull by the end of the year.
“Our analysis shows 80 per cent of our clients will come from Europe 12 per cent from the United States, and eight per cent from South Africa.
“Forty five per cent of that is anticipated from the UK, 18 per cent from France, largely due to the Napoleonic connection, nine per cent from Germany and eight per cent from a variety of other European places.”
Despite the uncertainties, Linda said she and her colleagues at Shelco remained optimistic about the future for the island and the Wirebird Hills project, which includes 165 holiday homes.
“We have spent six million pounds since 2000,” she said. “We will be spending another six million before we start on site, having met our planning conditions.
“We still have along way to go. What we need is a very positive outlook and positive approach.
“It’s business as usual for us. Shelco is passionate about our development, we are passionate about the island. We are working positively to make it happen.”