10 things you should know before you travel to Zanzibar
(...and how to deal with them)
1. The Entry
For the entry to Zanzibar, a visa does not have to be applied for in advance. (much too expensive and too complicated!) You get it simple and uncomplicated at the counter in the arrival hall. The visa costs USD 50,-/person and is valid for 90 days. The visa can either be paid in Euro (then it costs €50,- as well), in American Dollars or by credit card. Depending on who is sitting at the counter and what day it is and what mood they are in, the payment is ONLY possible with credit card or ONLY cash.
Therefore: have your credit card as well as cash ready.
There is no luggage belt at the airport, the suitcases are carried into the hall by porters and put on a pile. Tipping the porters is not a must, but of course welcome. After the luggage has been x-rayed, in approximately 10 metres you will find yourself outside there building, where porters want to help you with the suitcases. From the exit to the transfer bus it is approximately 20 – 30 metres.
Therefore: if you don’t want to pull your suitcase by yourself and/or you want to do something good, give the boys 1-2 dollars. The porters on Zanzibar do not get a salary and live on tips.
2. How to get around
There are 5 ways to get around on Zanzibar:
By rental car
Driving a car on Zanzibar is possible but a bit complicated. To rent a car you need an international and a Tanzanian driving licence, which will be issued by the local car rental company (passport photos + USD 12,-). Once you have the car, the following challenges await you: bad road conditions, suicidal chickens, cows, ducks, goats and many Zanzibarians walking along the road (there are no sidewalks). Your biggest problem, however, will be the police, who will try to take as many dollars as possible out of your pocket.
Therefore: if the police stops you: slow down, set the indicator and pull over to the left. Since our friend and helper will most likely find something you did wrong, you can try the following: Offer them to drive somewhere (“I give you lifti”) – most policemen on Zanzibar have no car. Offer them food or drinks that you have with you, call the car rental company and ask for help or take photos/a video of the policeman with the threat to send them to the police chief. If nothing helps or you want to avoid long discussions, bite the bullet and pay a small amount of money. Do not accept requests of huge sums like USD 120,-!!
Instead, try to make an offer from your side. (“We can arrange this friendly”).
The policeman then puts a notebook on the passenger seat and looks briefly in the other direction. You put the money in the book and that’s it. Thereby 10.000,- Tanzania Schilling are completely sufficient (USD 5,-).
The streets have no pavements and are partly in very bad condition. There are no footpaths and most hotels are far from civilization. Apart from that, it is usually too hot to walk long distances.
Therefore: I recommend walking in Zanzibar only for nice long walks on the beach.
With the Dala-Dala
The only public transport on the island. Dala-Dalas are small 16-seater buses that are open at the back and sides and are usually only covered with a tarpaulin or a wooden board. If you want to take a ride, wait at the street and raise your hand to show that you want to join. A number on the driver’s cab tells you where the buses are going.
Therefore: it is best to ask the driver where he is going. The trip with the Dala-Dala should be seen more as an adventure than a cheap means of transport. The car stops every 20 metres and when there is no more room inside, you stand on the rear bumper and hold on to the wooden roof – and off you go on your fun ride. For those who dare the adventure: with 1-3 dollars per way, a very cheap alternative to a taxi.
Taxis are very expensive on Zanzibar since the gasoline prices are exorbitantly high. For a trip from Kiwengwa or Nungwi to Stone Town, you have to calculate about USD 50,- one way.
Therefore: avoid long taxi rides if possible. For short distances the taxi is ok as transport. The taxis have fixed prices, but you should still ask for the price before the trip.
With a private driver or a guided tour
The safest, most comfortable but of course also most expensive possibility to get around.
95% of the Zanzibarian population belongs to Islam. Men usually wear long trousers with a shirt or a caftan, women mostly wear skirts and beautiful, colourful scarves, which they wrap skillfully around their body. They usually cover their hair with the hiyab. The muezzin sings his prayer 5 times a day. In the classic holiday hotels on the beach in Nungwi and Kiwengwa you usually don’t notice any of that. In the hotels in Stone Town like the Park Hyatt and the Serena Inn, you might hear the prayers.
Therefore: on a trip to Stone Town, women should cover knees and shoulders, men should wear knee-length trousers if possible. Gestures of affection for one another should be avoided, during Ramadan please do not eat or drink anything in the streets and behave politely and respectfully towards the people. This is also what we expect from guests who visit our country.
Excursions booked with the tour operator cost between USD 75,- and USD 120,- per person. Private tours cost about USD 250,-/car. If there are four of you, booking a private tour with a guide usually costs the same as a guided bus tour in a larger group. It is even cheaper if you simply rent a driver for a day at the hotel or with the holiday rep. Most Zanzibarians who work in tourism speak quite good English. Although they are no trained guides, they know their island like the back of their hand and are happy to guide you to places off the beaten track.
Where do you book? As a former employee of a big tour operator I should to tell you: book with the tour operator. So you are in good hands and insured. As a private person I often book in the cheaper small shops that you can find on many public beaches. Personally, I would rather not book directly with the beach boys at the beach, although I have received good feedback from my guests, but also very bad comments about their tours.
Therefore: compare prices and then weigh up safety with risk.
The best time to travel with the sunniest days is December, January, February, March to mid-April. The remaining months are rainy season, although it does not rain all the time. In my year on Zanzibar, May and November were very rainy. The sun was hardly visible during these two months, even if it did not rain at all. The rest of the year it was quite cloudy, but the temperatures were always above 20 degrees. A light jacket or a scarf around the shoulders was rarely needed in the evening.
Personally I noticed that the weather on the east side was mostly better than on the west side. Maybe no meteorologist will confirm this but whenever it was cloudy in Nungwi, the sun was shining in Kiwengwa.
Therefore: those who book in the main season have no guarantee for good weather but the chances for many sunny days are much higher than in the European summer months.
6. Poverty, crime and corruption
Unemployment in Zanzibar is high, wages are low. A well-paid Zanzibari working in tourism receives around USD 400,-/month, for others this is the average annual wage.
Nevertheless you will hardly see any begging people. The country is very fruitful, many families are mainly self-sufficient; what they have too much they sell on the market. The Zanzibarians live from one day to the next. They enjoy what they have and support each other in difficult times.
Therefore: don’t be shocked about the “poor” people living in the mud huts. Many people in Europe have much more money but are less happy than the Zanzibarians. You will see!
The crime rate is surprisingly low. In my year on Zanzibar there was not a single assault or theft on my guests or on me. Something to be enjoyed with caution is Stone Town at night; especially as a woman you will not feel very comfortable there in the dark. You should also avoid demonstrations and situations where the population makes its own laws.
Therefore: before booking, please check the website of the Federal Foreign Office. Check with your local tour guide whether all excursions, especially those to Stone Town, are currently safe – especially if there are elections.
From traffic police to airport personnel to the highest offices – corruption is omnipresent in Africa and something of an open secret. Stone Town is part of the UNESCO – World Heritage and receives millions of Euros in funding from UNESCO. Where does this money go? At least not to the preservation and renovation of the many old, beautiful buildings that are slowly decaying. If you drive past the palace of Zanzibars president, you might get an idea what happens to the money…
Therefore: do not be surprised about the slow decay of this beautiful city.
A very important point to think about before booking a hotel: the tides. Especially at the east coast, the low and high tides are so distinctive that the sea can retreat up to 1 km from the beach. I love this time, as then the Zanzibarian women cultivate their seagrass fields on the seabed. Their colourful clothes in combination with the blue sky and the white sand looks like a painting.
If you want to swim during the day, the tides usually restrict you. When the high tide has passed its peak, the sea retreats for a full 6 hours. From then on, you can swim again in approximately 3-4 hours. Thus, the pure bathing time is limited to a few hours per day.
This has to be specially considered if you book a hotel at the east coast. On the west coast the times are much less strong, especially in the north, in the region around Nungwi and Kendwa. Here, the sea also retreats at low tide, but only a few meters and you can swim in the sea all around the clock. As Zanzibar is located almost directly on the equator, the sun sets between 18:15 – 18:35 all year round, the tides shift daily by 45 minutes.
Therefore: pay attention when choosing a hotel and check the tide calendar before the trip.
Zanzibar is not necessarily known as a party destination. Alcohol is very expensive and only available in a few designated “liquor shops”. If you still want to party at least once during your stay, plan your holiday around the monthly Full-Moon Party in the north of the island. You can find the dates here:
Otherwise, especially in the hotel regions there are some local bars in which you can drink a cool or not so cool beer in the evenings with the local people. Some bars play Tanzanian and Nigerian “Bongo” music, to which the local people go wild on the dance floor. A must!
Therefore: dare to leave the hotel in the evening and give yourself the adventure: local bar. Even if it’s just for a beer, watching football on the old tube TV or chatting with the Massai from the beach.
In my year on Zanzibar I was vaccinated against hepatitis A+B, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and typhoid fever and I was not sick once, not even stomach troubles.
Zanzibar is considered to be malaria-free since 2008 and I personally have not heart of any malaria case on Zanzibar. Who wants to be prepared for the case of the cases, I recommend a malaria stand-by medicine. Malaria tablets which are taken daily as a prophylaxis cause strong side effects for many people. One of my guests told me that she is not allowed to become pregnant for 6 months after taking the pills. So it is not ideal to start family planning on your honeymoon.
A yellow fever inoculation is only necessary if travel to a yellow fever area such as Kenya or Tanzania or have spent at least 12 hours in that area. For Condor flights, which stopover in Mombasa, no vaccination certificate has to be shown. For a combination: safari in Tanzania + Zanzibar and/or Kilimanjaro + Zanzibar, the vaccination certificate will probably be checked at the airport, in Zanzibar as well as in Kenya or Tanzania.
Therefore: I would recommend the most important vaccinations like hepatitis etc. In addition, a good first aid kit with painkillers and something for the stomach, in case you are a bit sensitive. Sun protection, after-sun, insect spray and an after-bite. Almost every hotel has either a doctor or a nurse on site or at least a phonenumber of a doctor on call. For “home visits” the doctors charges between USD 80,- to 130,- + possibly costs for medication. The doctors are paid in cash and issue an invoice in English, which you can submit to your home health insurance company. In case of emergency, there is a good private hospital in Stone Town.
Please note that I write on the basis of personal experience and have no medical training. In case of doubt, please always contact the family doctor or tropical doctor.
Zanzibar is not a cheap holiday destination. The main reason for this is that except for coconuts and fish everything has to be imported into the country. In addition there are high customs duties and difficult import conditions.
You pay in Tanzania Schilling or American Dollars. Euros are not very welcome but can be changed into dollars at the airport or in most hotels. Those who want to withdraw money can do so in Stone Town. In the hotel region around Nungwi in the north there are (at least in my time there) no cash machines. In Kiwengwa there is now an ATM on the road. In Stone Town I recommend ATMs of the Barclay Bank, I had a lot of trouble with other institutions. The ATMs in Zanzibar gives only Tanzania Shillings and this only up to USD 130,-. More does not fit through the output slot 😊. The bank charges USD 6-7 per withdrawal.
Therefore: always carry a credit card and enough cash. Those who want to shop in Stone Town can also change some money in Tanzania Schilling in the hotel. According to my experience, if you pay in the local currency, you get slightly better prices.
Our author Claudia has lived and worked on Zanzibar for a year and learned that the world is not as dangerous as everyone wants to make you believe. Shocked at the beginning, what a great importance is given to your skin colour, she fell in love with this dreamlike island with the many colours, the nice people and the dream beaches. “What you can learn from the Zanzibarians: everything that counts is the now and today. Be satisfied with what you have. Worry less, enjoy more.”