The remote island of St Helena hopes its new airport will draw tourists and bring it independence, writes Jean Liou.
The tiny South Atlantic island of St Helena — where Napoleon died in exile — dreams of becoming a tourist draw when its first airport opens next year despite fears it cannot accommodate an influx of visitors.
For years only accessible by boat, St Helena has just one bank, no cash machine and no mobile phone reception.
Sailing out to St Helena from Cape Town every three weeks, the boat journey takes five long days. Because the island is so remote, only 1500 tourists visit each year.
But the tourism office hopes the weekly four and half-hour passenger flights scheduled to start from Johannesburg next February will change that — and the island's economy — forever.
Its director, Cathy Alberts, says she expects 30,000 tourists a year, and hopes that the change will help St Helena become self-sufficient.
Perched in the Atlantic halfway between Africa and South America, the island relies on Britain for most of its income — $116.6 million a year — but has its sights set on financial independence.
"We talk about 600 people per week. So it's not that much," Alberts says.
"It is doable, absolutely. As the demand increases, people will start providing the services."
Visitors will have several days in St Helena, ample time to see the local sights, including the house near Jamestown where Napoleon died on May 5, 1821.
But not everyone is happy with the change.
The idea of crowds of camera-wielding tourists worries many of the island's 4200 residents, who worry the island cannot meet such a demand.
"You can imagine the chaos on the roads," says Niall O'Keefe, who heads local development company Enterprise St Helena.
Local officials say change will not come instantaneously.
"In 10 years, I see St Helena livelier, with more people, more restaurants, more shops," the island's governor, Mark Capes, says. "But it will not be a big bang, it will not happen overnight."
Hoteliers are lobbying for a second flight to Britain, home to most of the island's tourists.
"To have two flights a week, we will need to double our hotel capacity," finance official Dax Richards says, adding that a surge in demand will swamp St Helena's meagre facilities.
The island now offers just 85 tourists beds for tourists and a few self-catering units.
Beds are just part of the problem. Because of its remoteness and dependence on funding, the island's infrastructure is lacking.
Some in the tourism industry worry that well-heeled visitors will be disappointed by unprofessional service and vent their disappointment on influential travel websites.
Others fear something worse: that the island could lose its soul.
"I hope we don't lose our cohesion, our sense of solidarity," tour guide Basil George says.
Building the airport has already disturbed the island, which is framed by craggy volcanic cliffs soaring hundreds of metres above sea level and enjoys a mild climate despite being located near the equator. A construction crew of 600 has had a big impact during the four-year project, which included chipping away at a mountain and backfilling an entire valley.
The runway will end just before the cliff drops a dramatic 300m into the Atlantic Ocean.
When South African airline Comair's Boeing 737-800 flights begin, up to 138 passengers will travel into St Helena each week — roughly the same number of people who arrive every three weeks by boat.
But the runway will not be long enough to accommodate larger aircraft flying from Europe.
The airport project also includes the construction of a 14km access road, which leads into a valley near the capital Jamestown, where a new wharf is being built.
Before the first plane lifts off, mobile phone service is expected to start - another major upheaval.
Whatever locals think, they must soon accept the inevitable reality that after years in isolation, St Helena is joining the rest of the world.
Getting there: The only way to get to St Helena at the moment is via cargo-passenger ship the RMS St Helena. It takes five days and is part of a round trip from Cape Town, South Africa.
Further information: See sthelenatourism.com.