Zanzibar: a sinking tourist paradise

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ZANZIBAR, Tanzania (eTN) – The tourist island of Zanzibar is celebrating the day of union with mainland Tanzania, while posing a sinking threat, not in the Indian Ocean, but in political turbulence, l

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ZANZIBAR, Tanzania (eTN) – The tourist island of Zanzibar is celebrating the day of union with mainland Tanzania, while posing a sinking threat, not in the Indian Ocean, but in political turbulence, likely to damage the once famous paradise in East Africa.

Politics is currently dominating every corner of this beautiful tourist island that once earned fame from prominent world personalities including Bill Gates, The Aga Khan, and the famous South African singer, Sipho Mabhuse, who sang in his song, “Oh Zanzibar.”

While tourists are still flocking to Zanzibar’s warm tropical beaches to enjoy the African sun or playing with dolphins and taking the time to go scuba diving, residents and politicians are busy debating whether their lovely tourist island should separate from mainland Tanzania or not.

With a population of about 900,000, Zanzibar wants to separate from the mainland Tanzania, with a population of about 45 million, to form its own republic.

Critics of the 1964 union between the mainland (Tanganyika) are looking at the entire affair as the Biblical story of David and Goliath. They claim that the mainland, which is richer simply by virtue of its size, also has more natural resources than the island.

Compared to Zanzibar, the mainland has almost all tourist attractions available in Africa – wildlife, cultural and historical sites, beaches, geographical features like Mount Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti Plains.

Zanzibar tourism, however, is made up mostly of pristine sand beaches, deep water diving, unique and rich multi-racial cultures, and historical sites. But, the island is more aggressive in its tourism development than the Goliath mainland.

Tourism is currently the leading source of revenue to Zanzibar’s economy, injecting 27 percent to the isle’s gross domestic product (GDP), while generating 72 percent of the isle’s foreign currency.

The island has seen a remarkable growth in tourism, with optimism to attract more holidaymakers there. Zanzibar is famous for its beaches, deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, and dolphin watching.

Its target is to attract high-class tourists to compete with other Indian Ocean island destinations, such as Seychelles, Mauritius, La Reunion, and Maldives.

Anti-union protesters see no reason to have the island be marketed as part of Tanzania instead of going alone. The slogan “Visit Tanzania, the Land of Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, and the Serengeti” has no value to the island’s tourism.

There are circulating reports that Zanzibar wants to abandon the current Zanzibar Commission for Tourism to establish its own tourism board and part away from the Tanzania Tourist Board, which has been marketing the island’s tourism in key tourist sources.

As of this, Zanzibar wants to stand alone and compete with Seychelles, Mauritius, La Reunion, and Maldives – the other island state destinations.

Critics of the Union see no reason why Zanzibar is much poorer than the rest of Indian Ocean islands, despite its rich ocean resources, taking into account that most island states in the world are richer than hinterland states.

There are circulating reports that Zanzibar people also want to see their island become a republic and run alone as a free port like Dubai, Singapore, or Hong Kong, and take an opportunity to dominate business links in Eastern, Southern and Central Africa.

A recent visit by this writer to Zanzibar could attest to the real political situation there. Members of the parliament were discussing and complaining of “foreignization of the island’s tourism,” referring to the higher influx of Kenyans and Tanzanians from the mainland.

In reality, Tanzanians from the mainland are counted as foreigners in Zanzibar and could find it hard to live and work in the island unless with special arrangements.

During one Friday afternoon prayers, a preacher of a Mosque at the famous tourist area of Stone Town, critically advocated for the “Republic of Zanzibar” outside the United Republic of Tanzania.

The cleric gave several reasons to justify his comments, some being dictatorship rule by the President of Tanzania over the people of Zanzibar, unfair distribution of wealth between the two sides of the Union, poverty among Zanzibar people, and rights over oil control and foreign policy.

He blamed the American (US) and British governments for engineering the make-up of the Union and maneuvering the secrets behind it, at the same time applying diplomatic tactics to ensure that Zanzibar remains a part of Tanzania.

The cleric said Americans and the British had masterminded the set-up of the Union so as to undermine the island’s rights over Indian Ocean resources. He said American and British governments are standing on the backs of Zanzibar people for the interest of western nations to exploit the island’s resources in guise of security over the Indian Ocean.

After independence from Britain in 1961 and the Zanzibar Revolution in January 1964, Tanganyika and Zanzibar united on April 26, 1964 to form the present Tanzania.

Rich in tourism, Zanzibar remains poorer compared to the mainland tourist towns of Arusha and Moshi in the northern circuit. Children’s rights activists have been raised an alarm over escalating child labor in the island’s tourism, mostly those taking tourists to dolphin safaris.

Members of the island’s parliament have recently blasted their government over moral decay among the youths, as the tourism industry thrives, while the level of poverty increase.

At every step you stride at the tourist site of Stone Town, you find people talking union politics, and not only that, even food vendors and government staff talk politics and their rights to be free from the hegemony of Tanzania mainland. The question remains whether this tourist paradise is going to survive.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.