Just the name ZANZIBAR conjures exotic images … and indeed this is a truly unique place where there is an infusion of Arabic, Indian and African cultures. It is difficult to describe this place, to go deeper than the wonderful beaches and palms, this place must be experienced to be fully understood. The relaxed attitude, the Islamic traditions and prayers, the markets, the Stone Town architecture, seaweed harvesting at the beaches, the Zanzibaris sitting on their house porches watching life go by, children playing with a football or some simple toy, the women looking curiously at westerners from beneath their robes and covered heads, the fishermen returning from a hard day’s work, the dhows (traditional boats) sailing through the emerald sea – these are but a mere fragment of the sights you may encounter and cherish in your heart forever.
But first you need to guard yourself with information before the experience. Here are 15 things you must know before setting out to Zanzibar.
1. Visas and Immigration
All visitors to Zanzibar require a passport. Passports must be valid for 6 months and have at least two clear pages. Most nationalities also require a visa. They are easily available on arrival at the airport and cost US$50 per passport, payable in US Dollar only.
Yellow fever certificate is an erratic requirement, occasionally the immigration officer may ask to see it, but more often than not they just stamp passports and collect the visa fee.
Please note there is a government departure tax of US$35 per person also payable in US Dollar.
So make sure you have US$85 per person in cash for visa and government departure tax.
Nationals of some countries do not require visas, so it is advisable to check with your nearest Tanzanian Embassy, High Commission or Consulate prior to visiting.
Tanzanian visas are issued by the Director of Immigration Services in Dar es Salam and by the Principal Immigration Officer of Zanzibar.
As well as Zanzibar International Airport there are currently three other points of entry into Tanzania from where visas can be obtained. They are at the Dar es Salam International Airport, Namanga Border on the road from Kenya into Tanzania and Kilimanjaro International Airport.
In mainland Tanzania, visas are granted on showing a return ticket from Tanzania. This ensures that the person has enough funds for making a return to his/her original country. A permit visa of three months is issued for tourists.
2. Zanzibar Seasons
The height of summer on Zanzibar is mid June and winter is in December. However, the islands are warm all year round due to their proximity to the equator. The short rains occur November – December. Expect frequent showers that do not last long.
Some coastlines can get very seaweed heavy at this time. The long rains fall between April and May. The rainy seasons are tourist low-seasons but for those looking for seclusion and not so bothered by the weather, they can be appealing. The rains are not normally continuous, but do not be too optimistic about rain not putting (if the pun can be excused) a damper on things.
4. Zanzibar Festivals
Zanzibar is home to two major festivals; the Sauti za Busara music festival in February and the Zanzibar International Film Festival in July. Both these take place in Stone Town and the city gets hugely busy during both. Another music festival has also recently sprung up, this one in Kizimkazi on the south coast; The Kizimkazi Cultural Music Festival.
Ramadan is one festival most tourists aim to avoid (especially those travelling to Stone Town) as many restaurants close during the day and eating in public before nightfall can be very awkward. However, the Eid-al-Ftir (end of Ramadan) is an excellent day to be in Stone Town as feasting and partying takes over the city, and all are welcomed. Since Muslims do not ingest any foods or fluids from first light until last light during the period of Ramadan, and as religious fervour is heightened during this period, and exhibitions of what locals would deem immodesty will be regarded with less tolerance than at other times, travelers should be very aware of Ramadan’s dates: 18 June 2015 – 17 July 2015
Note that Ramadan falls ten days earlier each year than the year before.
5. Zanzibar Culture and Religion
Zanzibar is a strictly Muslim town. With a little bit of respect, consideration and restraint this should not prove problematic for most travelers; there are of course some exceptions.
The major cultural code that many Western visitors fail to adhere to is the dress code. While uncovered shoulders and arms are acceptable, and female travelers should not feel obliged to wear any form of head gear, long skirts and trousers are recommended (knee length and below). Of course on the beaches and in resorts this is impractical and not expected. Topless sunbathing is not only frowned upon, but illegal on the archipelago.
Public displays of affection should be kept to a minimum, holding hands is fine, but nothing much more unless you are somewhere more private or secluded. Unmarried heterosexual couples have been known to be made to feel uncomfortable in some hotels but this is not normally the case. Single women may suffer from unwanted advances from Zanzibari men. This is partly due to the fact that these ‘lovers’ make a living out of affairs with tourists.
Zanzibar is in a malaria area and you need to take precautionary measures. Prophylaxis is most probably the better option. But, also use repellents and other precautionary measures.
Zanzibar is absolutely blessed with sunshine an almost continuous 10 months a year. Combine this with being at sea level and only a few hundred miles south of the Equator – you can get sunburn in 10 minutes. Trust me. I know.
8. Sea Urchins
When the tide goes out, there is a huge stretch of sand and rocks left bare which allows you to walk out to the edge of the reef. A lovely walk, barefoot in the sand, but beware!
Firstly there are lots of spinney sea urchins, so barefoot isn’t a good idea! Secondly, it is further than it looks. This means that, if you happen to be out as far as you can go when the tide turns, the water starts to get deep pretty quickly. Ok if you are a good swimmer, not so good if you’re not.
9. Falling coconuts
If you spend some time on a beach in Zanzibar (and almost every visitor does), be careful where you sit. A palm tree may provide some welcome shade, but a coconut landing on your head could cause major injury, possibly even death.
Locals are pretty vigilant in checking the trees regularly and picking any coconuts that appear ready to drop, but even so avoid sitting beneath any that has nuts on them.
Street Touts are often called ‘Beach Boys’ even when they are 40-50 years old. The local name for them is ‘Papasi’ the Swahili word for ticks. So what do they want? Most are friendly, definitely persistent and can be downright helpful sometimes. They will approach you just about anywhere. If you truly do not want any service of any kind, then be prepared. Here are services they can provide:
• Tour of Stone Town
• Other tours (Jozani Forrest, Spice Tour, Prison Island, etc.)
• Souvenir SHOPS/crafts
• Help with bags
• Directions to a specific place (they walk you there)
Be polite. If you tell them ‘I already have’ and list several of the items above, they start to realise that you know how things work. I ‘hired’ one, or he hired me and I paid $7 for a 2 hour tour of Stone Town. I was shown everything and had a fascinating explanation of local life. They work on a commission. So if you go to ‘my brother’s shop’ and you buy something they get paid a small amount by the shop owner later. Always keep some small coins on hand. If you get lost or really need help you’d be able to give them a small reward for their assistance.
11. TOP TIP
You can get to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam very easily by ferry. The service leaves four times a day and costs around $35-40, you can travel first class for just $5 more.
If you leave Zanzibar via some unorthodox way, say by ship other than the Pemba/Dar ferries or catamarans, ensure you get an exit stamp at the immigration office.
Especially if you leave for another country, such as Kenya or Mozambique, South Africa etc. Explain to the officers at immigration your situation and they will do their best.