Zanzibar lies on the east coast of Africa and consists of Unguja Island (also called Zanzibar) and Pemba Island, with several surrounding islets. The Island of Unguja is separated from mainland Tanzania by a shallow channel 37 km across at its narrowest point. It is 73 km from Dar es Salaam on the Tanzania coast and 219 km from Mombasa on the Kenya coast. The capital of Unguja Island is Stone Town. Pemba has three major towns; Wete, Chake Chake, and Mkoani.
When to go
Zanzibar is a year-round destination. The coolest months are June through October, when the temperature averages 26 Celsius. This can soar to well over 30 degrees in the hot season from December to March. During November (the ‘short rains’) and between April and June (the ‘long rains’), rainfall is higher. Rain in Zanzibar comes in short, sharp showers in the morning or afternoon, followed by the return of the sunshine. High season is June, July and August, and mid –November to early January. During these periods many of the more up market hotels may increase their prices, but smaller establishments and local guesthouses keep their prices constant throughout the year.
Zanzibar’s predominantly Muslim population observes the fast of Ramadan for a month every year, during which time believers are forbidden to eat, drink or smoke between sunrise and sunset. As a result, many smaller restaurants and snack bars are closed during the day. Offices and shops are also closed in the afternoons. Tourist resorts and hotels are unaffected, but local discos, clubs and musical shows remain closed throughout the whole period. If you plan to arrive during that time, stay for the end of Ramadan, and enjoy the huge feast and party, the Eid Al Fitr, the most festive time on the isles.
Visas and Vaccinations
Zanzibar is a semi autonomous state within Tanzania. Therefore, visitors from most countries are required to have a Tanzanian visa to enter. Please check with the Tanzanian Embassy or High Commission in your country before departure.
Visas are valid for three months and cost varies depending on nationality. Multiple entry visas, allowing you to leave and return to Tanzania as many times as you like can only be issued from within Tanzania. A $30 departure tax is levied if you’re leaving by air, and a $5 port tax applies when you book a ferry ticket. This is payable in US dollars only.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Frequent ferries make the crossing between Dar es Salaam, and Zanzibar. The fastest journey time is around 75 minutes on the hydrofoils operated by Sea Express; the slowest is the overnight trip made by the Flying Horse. Ferry tickets can be bought on the spot or in advance from the row of booking offices next to the port in Dar es Salaam. Non residents must pay in US dollars rather than shillings. Timetable and prices are displayed on boards outside each office.
The principal carriers to Zanzibar include Precision Air, Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines. Numerous airlines including British Airways, Emirates, Sabena and KLM fly to Dar es Salaam, from where you can catch a ferry or flight to Zanzibar. Charter flights from Europe, especially Italy, fly into Zanzibar almost daily. Precision Air, Coastal Travel and Zanair all provide scheduled charter flights. The flight from Dar es Salaam takes around 20minutes.
Traveling around Zanzibar is quite easy. The options on Unguja include renting a vehicle which is cheap and easy. You must have an International Driving Permit or a temporary 3 month driver’s permit which can be purchased on arrival, as police checks are regular. Cars with a driver are also available. A host of tour companies and freelance guides offer group transport to and from the coast and arrange trips to other areas of interest on Unguja and Pemba. Price reliability and condition of vehicles vary so if you’re concerned, use a reputable tour company. For those on tight budget, or for shorter distances, dala-dalas (trucks converted into passenger vehicles) and local buses run all over the island.
Zanzibar, and especially Unguja, is an ideal place to explore by mountain bike due to its flat terrain. Mountain bikes can be rented from several tour companies in Stone Town.
Money and Communications
The unit of currency in Zanzibar is the Tanzanian Shilling. US dollars are accepted in most hotels, restaurants and bars. By law, visitors have to settle hotel bills in US dollars or other hard currency, but this can be waived in smaller establishments. Internet and email communications are excellent in Stone Town, with many cheap Internet cafés. Outside Stone Town communications have vastly improved, and it is usually possible to find an email facility in the bigger villages on the coast. Telecommunications in Zanzibar has also improved dramatically with a host of different companies offering good services at reasonable rates. The Tanzanian postal system is fairly reliable.
Health and Safety
Visitors to Zanzibar are required by law to have a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate when they enter the country. Malaria prophylaxis is also recommended. See your travel doctor for other recommended inoculations and further details. Drink bottled water and avoid uncooked foods that may have been washed in untreated water. Sunstroke and heat exhaustion are common, so drink enough water and wear protective clothing and high factor sunscreen. Zanzibar is safe, and most locals are friendly and honest. But avoid flaunting wealth by wearing expensive jewelry or waving camera equipment around. Don’t walk with all your valuables on you in Stone Town. Avoid walking alone on beaches, especially at night.
The national language is Kiswahili, though English is widely spoken.
Important Cultural Considerations
Zanzibar’s have a long history of religious tolerance and although the islands are 99% Muslim, alcohol and tobacco are freely available. Visitors are, however, requested to show consideration for the culture of Zanzibar by dressing modestly and refraining from public displays of affection. When walking in towns and villages, women should wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees. Men should not walk bare-chested or wearing swimming trunks. Many visitors refuse to cover up and this causes offense and often outrage amongst the local population, even though these feelings may not be directly expressed. As one sign says, “Short skirts are like nude” On the beaches swimwear is acceptable, but topless sunbathing is not. During the fast of Ramadan, it is considered the height of bad manners to eat and drink in public places or while walking down the street. Non- Muslims should not enter mosques unless specifically invited to do so. Only take pictures of people if you have their permission, and don’t peer too obviously through the doorways of private houses in Stone Town.