Imagine an empty stretch of beach. The palm trees curve over the fine pale sand, like in those travel bureau brochures. Turquoise water gently froths the edge of the beach sand. Clouds crawl across the blue sky, rolling as if in slow motion. Not a soul in sight.
This scenery is very rare on Zanzibar. Either you will see a fishing boat, or a colorful flag of a hotel or kitesurfing center. And in 99 cases out of 100 you will see at least a handful people walking on the beach. Zanzibar is like Bali: so beautiful its existence is threatened by tourists loving it to death.
Everything must have been so different here when the traders and Europeans first began to settle: pristine, empty, white beaches and a few fishing boats, some mud brick huts, and reed huts. Local people probably wore very little clothing, and in general received everything they needed from nature. Today, what we tourists call a “beautiful sight” might be a wooden restaurant deck on stilts, stretching over the same beach, white-chalked hotel walls, and Swahili women in colorful long sarongs and headscarves.
While in Nungwi one can look over the water to Tumbatu island, which is part of the Zanzibar island group. Tumbatu is said to have only one road, used for walking or biking. There is no power except for a recent installation of solar panels. My guidebook and online sites say voodoo practice is deeper ingrained Tumbatu than on Zanzibar, as are reservations against visitors. There is said to be no love of (or for) tourists. Very few stay overnight, and most snorkeling guests are visited by a boat from Tumbatu, demanding money for swimming on their shore. At the same time, the people of Tumbatu want very little to do with the tourist business on their soil.
Zanzibar has some 600,000 inhabitants and Pemba island some 400,000. The Tanzanian government’s vision is to reach 500,000 annual visitors to the Zanzibar isles by 2020. Today, with some 350,000 annual visitors, the roads do not seem crowded, but I am certain the locals already feel squeezed, maneuvering their pushbikes, buses, and ox-carts among hotel SUVs and minivans. At the same time, the number of locals seems to be growing, too: there are two universities on Zanzibar and a surprising number of schools. I watched a school end its morning shift in Stone Town, and an incredible number of students tumbled out of the building. I did not try to count. In the afternoon, a second batch of students will enter the school for the afternoon shift, learning exactly the same things as the morning students did.
Zanzibari families are large: a farmer family might easily have 6-8 children, maybe more. With today’s healthcare and education systems, child mortality must be decreasing. In 20-30 years Zanzibar will not be recognizable, thanks to its growing inhabitant and visitor numbers. The rate-limiting factor is employment: people leave the islands if they cannot be employed. But I am convinced that as the population grows and tourism industry expands (most beaches are still far less developed than Nungwi or Paje), there will be more work.
I am glad I came now and not 30 years later. And I am sad if the lushness, the peacefulness, and the feel of paradise will have disappeared by then.(Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)