Zanzibar – an UNESCO World Heritage Site, a “spice island”, a melting pot of several cultures and the kilometre-long, paradisiac beaches. Yearly more and more visitors are fascinated by its “exoticness”. But does tourism bring exhaustive welfare to the population?
Let’s recap my visit of Zanzibar in 2012… (For those of you following me on Instagram, you will probably recognize some of the vibrant pictures.)
Stone Town, Zanzibar City: a dream from Thousand and One Nights
The special atmosphere in Stone Town has left a lasting impression on me down to the present day. Not for nothing it is part of the world heritage sites. Two days can be easily spent just by getting lost in its narrow, winding alleys. Over time, the old town of Zanzibar City has obtained Arabic, Indian and since the colonisation also Western influences. Especially the regional cuisinse consists of many typical Indian dishes like chapati, currys or rice-based dishes like pilau. The city really offers the flair that travelleres are looking for: historic palaces from the time of sultans mix with the reddish glow of houses build out of local coral stone. The big, old wooden doors are worth looking at; sometimes they are gilded, sometimes Arabic characters are carved in, in any case they are all nicely ornamented.
In the alleyways you can find many small shops that sell jewellery, clothes, decoration and other souvenirs. The streets are always full of people, be it locals who sit in front of their houses and chat during the day or play at dominoes in the evening, be it tourists that stroll around in shorts in a Muslim-dominated region. To that a wonderful scent of exotic spices!
Tip: Visit the festival Sauti za Busara (<eng.> “sounds of wisdom”) in the Old Fort, which takes place several days every February.
The festival aims to promote East African music and therefore exclusively features musicians from the greater region. If you haven’t listen to African music before, here is your opportunity to dance to Tanzanisan pop, rap, reggae or the traditional taarab with its oriental influences. By participating, you actively support local musicians and their visibility, and help to preserve the old, beautiful culture of East Africa.
The North of Zanzibar: kilometres of white beach
More than Stone Town the island is famous for its paradisiac beaches. 33°C around February, turquoise water, sandy white beaches… Even snorkeling tours are on the progamme. The following pictures are from the North of the island.
As my naive 19-year-old self, I tagged along a bigger group of volunteers to the North of the Island. On our way to the hotel, the poor, “real” picutre of Zanzibar passed by in front of the window of our dalla-dalla (the local minibus): poorly-built huts close to collapse, residents wearing worn clothes with holes and faded-out colours, dust and dirt everywhere… I was devastated to see the predominant condition and thus can well understand why Zanzibar is regarded as one of the poorest regions in whole Tanzania.
In Rwanda, I often find myself romanticizing the hard daily lives and the living conditions of my fellow men and depict them as something positive. But what I saw in Zanzibar broke my heart.
On the one hand, there is this heart-breaking poverty within the country. On the other hand, luxurious hotel buildings along the beach compete for the favour of customers. How is this huge gap between rich and poor even possible, I ask myself?!
The reality is that a big part of the revenue from tourism is going to big, foreign companies with their foreign employees. This is especially the case in big beach resorts. [Source: Colors of Zanzibar]
Most of the tourists come to Sansibar to relax at the beaches (which is totally fine as long as you choose your stay consciously, more thoughts on that later). The run-of-the-mill tourist blindly books an all-inclusive-holiday to have a minimal distance between sunbathing at the beach and the hotel bar for snacks and drinks. Most people are not even aware of the situation behind the hotel property.
Even our group booked several apartments in one of the big resorts. Luckily, it only included the bed and no food. Why luckily? Well, we founda small street vendor right across the street of our hotel, who sold fresh Zanzibar Pizza for only one euro every evening. One does wonder where the exorbitant high (almost Western) prices of the (Western-style) menu at the resort came from. (The first rule of conscious travels thus would be: Eat what locals eat.) Many of the holidaymakers did not seem to know or care about this circumstance.
By the way, Zanzibar Pizza (video) is a very delicious – but not very healthy – invention that I have really only seen in Zanzibar so far. It’s hard to explain, so you better watch the video to see how it’s made, but it’s basically a savory crèpe, filled with meat, eggs, vegetables and mayonnaise, and then fried in a hot pan.
Apart from sunbathing, snorkelling seems a big thing in Zanzibar. Since it was my first time, it was kind of fun. However, I believe there are way nicer places to go to look at coral reefs than in the North of Zanzibar. I personally would have wished for some more colours under water. Since 2012 was some time back, I don’t know which company we went with and how commercial that might have been, so don’t rely on my opinion. What I know for sure is that there is a really special coral reef close to Zanzibar, if you have a look at one of the links at the end of this article.
Sustainable tourism in Zanzibar?
Example: A luxury hotel on Zanzibar uses around 3,200 litres of water per day and room for the swimming pool, lawn and water supply of its guests. Local average households however can only use 93 litres per day. [Source: Brot für die Welt, EED – TOURISM WATCH 2013:32]
Sustainable tourism looks quite different. Despicte increasing tourism, Sansibar is among the poorest regions in the whole country. New projects need to be initiated to actively include and involve the local population, for better education and living conditions of its inhabitants. Some companies already have suche guidelines or even have won adwards already. So when booking your vacation, you hould carefully examine hotels and tour operators.
For more information on how to evaluate if a tour operator is sustainable or not, you can have a look at this great post from Oksana and Max on Drink Tea & Travel:
Do I recommend going to Zanzibar?
I am still undecided. As beautiful as the pictures may look, the island – as we saw it – was way too touristic for me. Most of the visitors come here to lie on the beaches, which isn’t my favourite leisure-time activity. If you’re in Tanzania anyway, head to Zanzibar for a week-end getaway, but I do not suggest to come here all the way from Europe, pardon me.
And also – my most important point – and I cannot stress this enough: If you plan to visit Zanzibar, then make sure to book an accomodation in a reasonable hotel that helps to improve the livelihood of its residents, even though you might have to spend a few more euros on it. The best way to happiness is knowing where your money is going/helping 🙂
At last I collected a few interesting projects of people actively working on helping the society in Zanzibar. You might have a look at them below.
PS: Have you been to Zanzibar? What was your impression? Do you know of non-profit projects on Zanzibar? Tell us about them in the comments or contact me for a guest post. This is a very dear topic to me.
♤ Tourism in Zanzibar: Incentives for sustainable management of the coastal environment (scientific article)
The links in this article are just for your information and I don’t receive any compensation for mentioning them here.