Zanzibar spotlights cultural, ecotourism product

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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 attractions.

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 tourists.

Sunset on the Indian Ocean, as viewed from the Zanzibar coast.Even 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 caps.

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 prefer.

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.

Ecotourism

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 monkey.

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 faces.

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.

Add-on destination

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 honeymooners.

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].

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