With Mango Airlines having added Zanzibar to their planned flight routes, the Spice Island has gained much popularity amongst South Africans.
With no intent but to explore, we too decided to add it to our list of travels, and mid February seen us soaking up the East- African sun on picturesque white beaches, while singing along (with locals) to the beat of “Jambo” – a famous Zanzibarian song that added a touch of ‘Caribbean’ to our experience.
Yes the people of Zanzibar are a friendly and jovial folk. Being a small island with a semi-autonomous government, the islands main industry revolves around tourism, which explains many a citizen’s hospitable demeanor. From the ordinary shop keeper to the common street urchin, the gesture of a warm welcome was evident, and at times even overbearing while providing us with much needed assistance in getting around.
Our adventure began on the Eastern part of the island, in a rural village town called Uroa. The weather was hot and humid, and sunscreen proved ineffective. This however, did not keep us from maximizing the limited time that we had, and it wasn’t long- before we were exploring the depths of the ocean while hand feeding schools of exotic species’ of fish living amongst the colorful coral, in a full days snorkeling expedition. Returning to our hotel with a complexion off, of the color spectrum, and with burning skin, we spent the remainder of our time touring the island, and simply interacting with the locals, all of which can be read about in future blog posts.
The official currency of Zanzibar is Tanzanian Shillings while Amercian Dollars are widely accepted. It is interesting to know that South Africa does not sell or buy Tanzanian Shillings, and of the many foreign exchange bureaus we had come across in Zanzibar, only two bureaus bought and sold South African Rands.
For this reason it is imperative to buy US Dollars before arrival on the island. One could always use the US Dollars to buy Tanzanian Shillings later on. This is not only wise, but also advisable as items purchased work out much cheaper when paying in the local currency as opposed to when paying in US Dollars.
GH TIP – Forex rates are best offered at the airport, and everywhere else on the island come at a premium
Tours and tour operators
With tourism being at the forefront of the economy, there is an assortment of tour operators to choose from. While one is free to design their own tour package, there is a standard list of the most popular and common tours offered by all.
While prices may vary with all seemingly high, they are all within similar ranges.
There is also an abundance of ‘beach-boys’ that approach sunbathing tourists, in a bid to offer the same tour packages as authorized tour operators.
Negotiation is a must here, and larger groups of people, attract a fairly bigger discount.
Having purchased tour packages from both- an authorized tour operator and a tour organized by a ‘beach-boy’- its safe to say that each comes with its own pros and cons.
While tour packages from authorized tour operators are generally more expensive, tour packages from beach boys are significantly cheaper.
Also the flexibility offered with a beach boy cannot be compared with a tour package offered by an authorized tour operator. This is specifically due to the authorized tour operator having to focus on a large group of people at a time, while the beach boy focuses on a smaller group.
Safety standards rated the same between the two options.
GH Tip: Befriend other tourists, and organize a group tour from a ‘beach-boy’
Restaurants and eateries
Dependant on location, restaurants either come in abundance or are non-existent. This is the case in the east coast of the island where places of interest are situated far apart from each other, and travel is rather expensive. Even though hotels offer the full board meal plan, we opted for breakfast only. This decision was made purely on the basis of our intent to explore and was the wisest decision by far. Not only were we afforded with the flexibility of not having to be home in time for lunch or supper, but also, we had the added benefit of choice which is forfeited when committing to a scheduled eating plan.
With the exception of certain restaurants, the average price of a meal is similar to that of South Africa, and while we did not enjoy the meat products, the seafood was exceptionally delicious.
GH Tip: Octopus is a delicacy and offered everywhere, so always check what is on offer before ordering a seafood platter.
Infrastructure and getting around
Buildings in the capital of Stone Town date back to the 19th century. These buildings have been tweaked in order to fit into modern times, while retaining the same classical appearance.
A labyrinth of narrow gullies make up its roads, and one has to exercise a level of caution whilst navigating the city.
Even so, the general state of the roads is rather impressive and even though no visible markings are painted on the tarmac, no potholes are evident.
Private taxi fares are expensive. No bus system is in place, and the locals use a Dala-Dala to commute between towns. Each Dala-Dala has route numbers printed on the vehicle, and a list of routes can be obtained here.
The cost of a Dala-Dala is significantly lower than that of a private taxi, and the only hindrance that one would have to contend with is a quick pull- over to load other passengers.
The resultant is a longer travelling time, with less comfort than that of a private taxi, however well worth the experience.
GH Tip: Do not arrange for private taxis from your hotel. These are more expensive than when using the taxi services offered from an independent tour operator. As with tours – more people travelling together attract a larger discount
Shopping in Zanzibar
Malls are small and not many in number; ‘Shopping complex’ would be a more befitting description. Shopping is done mainly in designated market places, such as Darajaani Market, with the majority of shops and stalls located on the side of the road.
Do not be fooled by street vendors as their focus on selling to tourists means paying a premium for items. One could easily acquire the same product from a store or market place, at a reduced price.
Negotiation is key, and be not afraid to walk away from a deal that you would consider to be unfair. There is an abundance of similar items on offer, and one could easily obtain the same item for half the price, at an adjacent stall.
GH Tip: always opt to pay in Shillings rather than Dollars, as items are cheaper when paid with the local currency
Best time to visit
An extremely hot climate with a high humidity factor renders sunscreen useless. Be sure to pack sun hats and have adequate protection at hand as the humidity does tend to become uncomfortable at times.
From March to May it is considered ‘rainy season’, and long afternoon downpours are pertinent. The temperature however drops by only a few degrees and is still considerably hot.
Short rains happen from November to February, which leaves June to October the best time to visit.
Where to stay
Nungwi and Kendwa, situated at the North of the island, are better geared for tourists, and boasts a range of exclusive resorts, while the East and South coasts of the island are more rural in nature- offering stay for travelers on a budget.
If the availability of action water sports is the deciding factor in ones choice of residence, we would recommend a stay in the Northern part of the island. However, do know that indulgence comes at a hefty premium.
A typical example would be that of paragliding- while in Mauritius this can be done for $30, in Zanzibar the charge is $100. Hiring of a jet ski comes in at a whopping $50 for a 15 minute interval.
In contrast, the South and East coasts offer a more quiet and relaxed environment, with early, starry nights and a calm, shallow beach, which makes ‘trekking’ through the ocean an experience not to be missed.
Where the spice trade once ruled the economy, the industry is now rated secondary with tourism being at the fore front. Coupled with the cost of living being relatively low, Zanzibar offers a world of opportunity. With this in mind construction is a booming industry and has yet to really take off. Most (if not all) high end resorts on the Island, are owned by foreigners and foreign companies.
Fumba Town, being the latest town development in the West coast of Zanzibar offers a modern touch to an island lifestyle. The target audiences are foreigners, and in contrast to other areas, is the first luxurious town being developed according to modern standards. Only a 5 minute drive from the airport, and 10 minutes away from the capital, phase one of this new development is already 97% sold out (March 2017).
In conclusion- for entrepreneurs (budding and seasoned), the Spice Island being a developing nation offers a huge gap in the market place in almost all industries.
As for the city dweller casually looking to invest in a holiday home, Zanzibar boasts a rather peaceful, laid back island-style lifestyle, perfect for short quite breaks away from the hustle and bustle of polluted city life.
Coming Soon- A detailed look into the standard tours offered in Zanzibar. Subscribe below.