ZANZIBAR, Tanzania -- When Zanzibar hosts the African Travel
Association's Cultural and Ecotourism Symposium Dec. 2 to 7, it
should have no trouble showcasing itself.
From the atmosphere amid the tin-roof, coral-stone houses of
Stone Town to the red colobus monkeys in the Jozani Forest Reserve,
the islands offer plenty of cultural and ecotourism
But for U.S. agents and operators, the big question may be how
best to sell the destination.
A real place
Zanzibar, located 25 miles off the coast of Tanzania (of which
it is part) also offers beaches, spice tours and other enticements.
But it isn't particularly well known in the U.S. -- when I told one
acquaintance of my trip, she responded, "You mean Zanzibar is a
real place?" -- and U.S. travelers account for about 11% of its
my brief visit to Zanzibar's main island, however, revealed some of
its strongest selling points. Zanzibar includes the main island of
Unguja, known to most of the world as Zanzibar Island; its sister
island, Pemba; and other islets.
Stone Town is the old city at the heart of the main island.
Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, it once was one of the
most important trading centers on the Indian Ocean for ivory,
spices and, unfortunately, humans.
In this place, sultans ruled and the slave trade flourished.
For a chilling reminder of the latter, an underground chamber
where slaves were held before auction, and where many died of
suffocation and starvation, is open for public view near the
Cathedral Church of Christ.
Full of life
But these days, as I walk through Stone Town's narrow, winding
streets and alleyways, the city is bustling with life.
The air is filled with the sounds of motorcycles,
schoolchildren's voices and storefront chatter (at certain times of
the day, visitors also will hear the Muslim call to prayer). Push
carts and bicycles squeeze by.
In a public square, two adults play an East African board game
called bao, moving seed pods around a board with 32 small, recessed
bowls. At another square, two men are playing checkers with bottle
Motorcyclists and bicyclists race by little girls wearing white
head coverings and ankle-length black dresses with long sleeves.
Some shops sell khanga, the colorful body wrap some of the women
I stop to admire some of the large, carved, sometimes
brass-studded and ornate wooden doors. Stone Town is known for the
doors, some more than 100 years old.
Mkunazini Street is home to the city market. Meat, fish,
vegetables and fruit are sold outside at stands or on sack cloths
on the ground, and a few vendors grind sugar cane. But for
visitors, this will mostly be about looking and experiencing the
sight, smells and bustle, as the rawness of the presentation likely
won't appeal to Western buyers' tastes.
More appetizing will be the many restaurants overlooking the
Indian Ocean, such as the Blues Restaurant, where we dine on
seafood as dhows float by and children dive from a nearby pier into
the blue water.
As for ecotourism, just 21 miles southeast of the city -- but
about an hour's drive -- the six-square-mile Jozani Forest Reserve
serves as a sanctuary for the endangered Zanzibar red colobus
The monkeys feel comfortable enough with our presence to scurry
about and leap from tree to tree within a few yards of their human
observers. The species of red colobus monkey here is unique to
Zanzibar, and they make quite an impression with their red backs
and the white-tufted hair that surrounds their expressive
There is a mix of cultures in Zanzibar -- African, Arab, Indian
and European -- thanks to the island's trading history. But
Zanzibar is 90% Muslim, which, in these times, could create some
wariness among potential U.S. visitors.
If there is any anti-Western sentiment, however, I didn't detect
it in my visit. Nor did Brendan Worldwide Vacations agent Doreen
Kates -- a single, Jewish woman traveling alone -- in a visit
earlier this year.
Most tour operators offer Zanzibar as an add-on destination
after an African safari, touting its beaches and Swahili culture.
African Travel, a company in Glendale, Calif., also touts
Zanzibar's Pemba for snorkeling and scuba diving and Mnemba for
At Adventure Center in California, general manager Trevor Saxty
said the operator has had "nothing but positive feedback" on the
destination. However, he noted Zanzibar still is "off the beaten
track," and his company works with clients who are more adventurous
than the average traveler.
Adventure Center prefers using small, local hotels "to evoke the
character of the destination." But many tour operators seem to
prefer the Zanzibar Serena Inn for U.S. clients.
Meanwhile, Zanzibar tourism officials are hoping promotional
efforts, including a seminar it offered at a Chicago exhibition in
February, will increase awareness.
"We are still trying to convince the U.S. market," said Mohammed
Vuai, executive secretary for the Zanzibar Tourism Commission. "We
are very hopeful they are getting to know the place."
To contact reporter Andrew Compart, send e-mail to [email protected].