Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous archipelago of Tanzania in East Africa. It is composed of many small islands, out of which Pemba and Unguja are the largest. Unguja island is the home of the exotic Stone Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is usually referred to as Zanzibar. The archipelago which is ringed with some of Africa’s richest reef and marine life lies on the Indian Ocean and it is what tropical beach dreams are made of.
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Why you should think of Zanzibar travel today?
Think exotic culture and heritage which seems straight out of Arabian Nights, dazzling white beaches, warm turquoise ocean, and fragrant spice gardens. When blessed with such romantic attributes, it is no wonder that Zanzibar is pretty popular as a honeymoon destination. Many travelers visit there to savour its unique exotic beauty. Despite this popularity which brings a massive revenue along with spices and raffia, traveling in Zanzibar can be easy or tough. The main island is a hotbed for scams, hustlers, harassment against women travelers and the locals have become increasingly hostile over the years. The reasons are plenty and the biggest one being inappropriate travel etiquettes shown by the tourists. Lack of proper development among the locals too have turned them hostile and it is not unusual for the tourists to be verbally abused by the shopkeeper if not making a purchase. Such incidents, however, are mostly centered around Stone Town and despite such annoyances, it is a place to see in a lifetime.
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Before your Zanzibar travel, let’s understand its history
Now, the best way to love and enjoy Zanzibar is to understand its history in a nutshell. This will help a traveler understand and respect the diverse feelings of the locals. Zanzibar was used by the Persians for trading ever since the 3rd centuries and the Middle Ages brought in the Bantu Swahili people from the mainland. They acted as intermediaries and facilitators to the local, Arab, Persian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese merchants, who by then thronged to the spice island for trading opportunities. 1498 marked the beginning of European influence and sometime in 1500’s Zanzibar came under Portuguese rule. The Omani Sultans took over swiftly and in 1698 Zanzibar was a part of the Sultanate of Oman. The sultans developed trade and cash crops in the Zanzibar Archipelago and ivory was a major good. The islands also came to be known as the Spice Islands and the rulers promoted plantations to grow them.
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From iron and spices to slaves
Over the period of time, the Indian traders with encouragement from the ruling sultan took over the commerce and soon Zanzibar became notorious as a slave trade hub. During his 14-year reign as sultan, Majid bin Said boosted local slave trade and the notorious Tippu Tib reigned supreme. An Arab slave and ivory merchant, Tib led huge expeditions into the African interior to purchase slaves and ivory from local chieftains and with time he became one of the wealthiest men in Zanzibar. This evil commerce was finally brought to end by the British with the help of Sultan Majid’s two brothers and in 1890, Zanzibar became a protectorate (not a colony) of Britain, with the sovereignty belonging to the Sultan of Zanzibar. In 1963 the British terminated the Protectorate and Zanzibar was merged into mainland Tanganayika. This merger brought about a new nation, the United Republic of Tanzania and the name was a blending of Tanganayika and Zanzibar.
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So let’s begin the Zanzibar travel guide
Thus Zanzibar was reborn and remains as it is today, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. When so much active history is packed inside an island, it is quite understandable that the effect will be both dramatic and a bit troublesome. But as mentioned before, it is a destination to be visited once in a lifetime and with some caution, Zanzibar can be a lot of fun. I visited Zanzibar as a part of my long overlanding Africa tour and many years have passed since then. That’s why, in this Zanzibar travel guide, I am not attaching redundant numbers, but a brief note on Zanzibar travel guide.
The visa regulations to plan your Zanzibar travel
All visitors must obtain a visa prior to entering Tanzania. This excludes nationals of the East African Community, Hong Kong, Macao, Rwanda, Romania, and Commonwealth countries (excluding Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, India, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and the United Kingdom). Nationals of the following countries must have their request for visa referred to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania:- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Chad, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Palestine, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Somaliland, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and all Refugees and stateless persons. It is emphasized that Nationals and persons of the mentioned categories may not be allowed entry into Tanzania without being in possession of Referred Visas. In this category, the visa applicant is advised to submit their application to the High Commission at least three weeks before their travel date, along with a contact name and number in Tanzania. Only a single entry visa can be issued in this category. You must apply for and obtain a visa from a nearest Tanzania Embassy, High Commission or a Consulate before proceeding to Tanzania. Indian passport holders can check http://www.tanzrepdelhi.com for the visa requirements and http://tanzaniaembassy-us.org/ is for US passport holders. Zanzibar, being a semi-autonomous region maintains its own immigration service and you need to have a valid passport to enter, even if you come from mainland Tanzania. This also requires filling up another Tanzania arrival card for your arrival in Stone Town, and a Tanzania departure card when you leave.
Vaccinations to keep in mind before your Zanzibar travel
Yellow Fever vaccination is mandatory if traveling from yellow fever endemic countries/regions. The Ministries of Health in Tanzania and Zanzibar have changed their yellow fever policies in 2012. Now all individuals in transit for twelve hours or more and/or who leave the immediate airport vicinity in a yellow fever endemic area are required to show proof of vaccination upon arrival in any port of debarkation here in Tanzania. Direct arrivals from non-endemic countries in Europe and North America are not required to show the certificate. Carrying a Yellow Fever Vaccination record is mandatory. Other commonly recommended vaccines for travelers to Africa include those against Tetanus, Diphtheria, Polio, Typhoid, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Malaria Rabies and Meningitis.
Other Zanzibar travel facts
When to Go
The best time to visit Zanzibar is either from June to October or from December to February. July to August and February to March are best scuba diving times off the coast of Zanzibar. Visiting the archipelago during the rainy seasons of mid-March to late May and November is not advisable.
Zanzibar is catered by direct scheduled flights of Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, Qatar Airways, and Oman Air. Several international carriers like Emirates, Egyptair etc fly into Dar-es-Salaam which is a short air or boat trip from Zanzibar. South African Airlines, Kenya Airways, Air Zimbabwe, Ethiopian Airlines etc also connect either Zanzibar or Dar-es-Salaam with the rest of Africa. There are also some domestic flights to and from other regional cities in Tanzania. Getting to Zanzibar by sea is also a popular option among travelers and several ferry companies ply between Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam. The largest of these is Azam Marine. You can book ferry tickets through a local tour operator or at the ferry terminal.
Taxis are an expensive way of traveling around the island. Despite having a “list” of fixed prices for the various destinations on the island, bargaining is mandatory. Pick up and drops can be arranged through your hotel too and negotiating the inflated price is expected. However, some Stone Town hotels offer free shuttle service from the airport. The cheapest and a bit uncomfortable way of going around the island is with the dalla-dalla. A ride usually costs around USD 1.50 per person to get from Stone Town to the north, east or south coast. There are also shared taxis operating from Stone Town for $10 per person and regular taxis from Stone Town to any coastal area in Zanzibar cost about USD 50. Renting a car is a popular way of traveling around the island and do check the roadworthiness of the vehicle before hiring it. Make sure you have your driving license, the temporary Zanzibar drivers permit, car insurance as well as road license stickers on the windscreen before driving around Zanzibar. The temporary Zanzibar drivers permit can be obtained from local authorities. Car rental companies also arrange it for a fee.
Cheap accommodations in Zanzibar is not easy to find. However, most Stone Town budget hotels in Stone Town have dormitories for backpackers and money conscious travelers. Recently some historic buildings in Stone Town have been converted into lovely boutique hotels and luxurious retreats like Kilindi, Kinasi Lodge etc have oodles of class. There are some spice farm and plantations which offer B&B services and Prison Island, baobab tree houses at Chole Mjini, Chumbe Island etc are great offbeat alternatives. The little village of Nungwi in the northern tip of Zanzibar also offers a wide range of accommodations including luxurious hotels to little homestays.
Forodhani Gardens is Zanzibar’s famous night market. It starts at around 5 and gets busy after the sun sets. The market offers a lot of local food and personally, I have found it to be a huge scam. The food is mediocre at Forodhani Gardens, the prices horrendously inflated and the sellers are vicious. However the ambiance is great and from crab claws, calamari steaks, pancakes, plantain chips to local sugar cane juice, the night market offers a huge variety of goodies. There are a couple of excellent rooftop restaurants at Stone Town and Hurumzi and Maru Maru hotels have the best dining views. Seafront restaurants also dot along the shores and best pilau is available at a little eatery called Lukman. Do try some local dishes like fish in coconut sauce when in Zanzibar. Despite being a conservative Islamic island, there are plenty of bars in Zanzibar and shisha is also available at most of these places. For a truly memorable and exceptional travel memory, do dine at Zanzibar’s famous Rock Restaurant. Located at the southeastern part of the island, on the Michamwi Pingwe peninsula, this much-hyped restaurant sits atop a rocky outcrop a bit away from the shore. Prices are on the higher side and reservation is mandatory.
Zanzibar currency is the Tanzanian shilling and carrying cash in USD makes sense in the island. Travelers cheques are not accepted in Zanzibar and few shops accept credit/debit cards. Zanzibar is a lovely shopping destination and beautiful textiles, handmade jewelry, intricate wood or stone carvings, spices etc make great buys. There are community projects to support the local women like Jenga in Pingwe/Michamvi which offer beautiful handmade clothing from Kanga or Kitenge, sandals, handbags, laptop/notebook covers made of old kites, jewelry etc. The Seaweed Center in Paje has interesting soaps, seaweed juice etc for sale. It is prohibited to take shells or sand out of Zanzibar and most ebony products on sale at Zanzibar are considered fake. Bargain hard and be prepared for aggressive behaviour from some local shop keepers.
Zanzibar Travel Tip
Zanzibar being a conservative Islamic island dressing respectably is highly advised. Wearing loose long or half sleeved shirts and knee-length pants or skirts is very much accepted and avoiding walking around in beachwear, skimpy clothes or public display of affection is frowned upon.
Places to visit and Activities to do during your Zanzibar travel
- Stone Town tour, spice tours, diving, snorkeling, fishing and/or sunset sunrise dhow tours, kitesurfing, deep-sea angling, cycling in the villages, visit Jozani Forest to see the indigenous Red Colobus Monkey and bush babies.
- Stone Town is Zanzibar’s heritage jewel. No Zanzibar trip is complete without having explored the narrow, cobbled streets of Stone Town. The places of interest worth visiting in that area are Beit el-Ajaib (House of Wonders), a former Sultan’s palace, the Palace Museum (People’s Palace), Dr. Livingstone’s House and the Arab Fort. A trip to the site of Sultan Barghash’s harem at Marahubi is also very interesting.
- Zanzibar has plenty of beautiful beaches and Mangapwani, Matemwe, Pwani Mchangani, Kiwengwa, Uroa, Bwejuu, and Jambiani are mostly endless stretches of beautiful white sands. The traditional dhow building yard at Nungwi is definitely worth a visit.
- Prison Island makes an ideal half day tour from Stone Town. Once a punishment site for misbehaving slaves, the island is fringed with a beautiful coral reef and has a lovely white beach for sun-bathing. The Aldabra Tortoise Conservation Project is also based there and the island resort has a small restaurant too.
- The tiny island of Memba, lying about a kilometer north-east from Zanzibar is an idyllic beach paradise. There are excellent offshore reefs which offer beautiful snorkeling experience and some diving spots are also located close by. The privately owned island, whose reef is open for day excursions is also a nesting site for the endangered green turtle.
- Home to small fishing villages, colonial ruins, and miles of wild coastline, the underdeveloped Pemba is also a beautiful destination. Infrastructure is limited here since tourism still at its nascent stage but its pristine coral reefs, warm water, and visibility between 20 and 40 meters make Pemba rank among the world’s best dive sites. Other activities such as water sports, excursions to mangrove forests, sunset dhow cruises and spa treatments are also available at Pemba.
- For exceptional snorkeling and diving head for the marine sanctuary at Chumbe. Designated as Zanzibar’s first marine reserve, Chumbe’s pristine shallow-water reefs offer incredible underwater experience and there are turtles, rare birds and many beautiful fish species to discover.
- A classic, off-the-beaten-track tropical island, Mafia provides the discerning visitor with a serene and exclusive hideaway, far removed from the crowds of Zanzibar. The largest island of the Mafia Archipelago, Mafia is widely acknowledged as one of the best dive sites in the Indian Ocean. Mafia’s excellent dive shacks and lodges provide all the equipment and its remote beaches and pristine reefs will take your breath away.
For some interesting reads on Zanzibar, check out posts on Independent Zanzibar guide and Zanzibar travel etiquette
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