If a flight to the remote island of St. Helena never existed, you’d probably never miss it. In fact, you might never even have heard of the 47-square-mile island if it weren’t for the fact that Napoleon was exiled there. Still, visiting is easier than ever now that St. Helena Airport is officially open for business.
Before the airport was open, the only way to get to the British-owned island, which sits in the Atlantic Ocean between Angola and Brazil, was by a five-night ship ride from Cape Town. With just 3,500 visitors max every year, according to Reuters, that used to suffice. The volcanic island’s new flight zone has been dubbed the “world’s most useless airport.” (Unlike this airport voted “best in the world” five years in a row.)
Still, the British government had been talking about building an airport on the island since the 1930s. Finding a flat enough site on the rocky island wasn’t easy, though. For instance, one of the few large, flat areas was a breeding ground for the endangered wirebird, so builders couldn’t risk that population. Eventually, they picked a new spot on the top of a rock-filled valley.
Construction actually wrapped up in 2016, but setbacks like dangerous wind conditions pushed back any chance of large flights making it to St. Helena. By the time the first commercial flight touched down in October 2017, the British government had spent £285 million ($380 million) on the airport—about $89,000 for each of the island’s 4,255 residents, according to the BBC. (Before your next flight, check out these 18 things you should never do on a plane.)
At this point, St. Helena survives off £53 million ($70 million) every year from the British government. The hope was that a plane route would bring tourism so the government could start giving less aid. Judging by the first plane ride, though, it might not be quite the boost the government hoped for. The plane had room for 100 passengers, but weight restrictions meant only 68 could get onboard. (Quite the contrast from this sneak peek of what will be the world’s biggest airport.) Commercial flights will only come in once a week, according to The Guardian.
Still, tourists who ride into St. Helena Airport might be pleasantly surprised by everything the remote island has to offer. In addition to Napoleon’s house, St. Helena has a diverse landscape, from rocky desert and cactus-covered hills to lush forests where “roads are lined with ancient, knobbly trees straight out of Middle-earth,” according to St. Helena’s website. Plus, diving and boat trips mean an up-close look at whale sharks, humpback whales, and the rest of the marine life around the island, according to The Guardian.
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Not that tourists will be the only people taking advantage of the airport. With the Cape Town ship shutting its doors in February, locals will need the airport to leave, too—and it has already come in handy. Governor Lisa Philips tells Reuters that even before commercial flights arrived, the runway was used during medical emergencies, like saving a newborn’s life. “I’ve seen the headlines about the world’s most useless airport,” she says, “but for St. Helenans this has already been the most useful airport.”
Hopefully, St. Helena Airport doesn’t get the same fate as these 8 eerie photos of abandoned airports.