Zanzibar’s skyline is changing, but traditions still survive

Andrea Tapper –

For the moment, the hammering sound of the builders has stopped. Everywhere you look, the facades of buildings are covered in plastic tarpaulins. Zanzibar, the tropical archipelago off Africa’s eastern coast, is waking up from a long, deep sleep.
It’s just before twilight, and most holidaymakers here don’t even notice the artful restoration work going on around them, but instead have just one thing on their minds: to enjoy the sunset over the Indian Ocean from the lively city beach, or perhaps from the rooftop terrace of a trendy boutique hotel.
Every evening, a cacophony of sounds rises from the old city centre. There’s Western rap music coming from the Tatu bar on the sea front; the sound of bells chiming from Indian temples; and from mosques, the muezzin calling people to evening prayers.
You could be forgiven for wondering whether such a cultural medley of old tradition and hip partying will endure on this island, which is so very different from its luxurious sisters in the Indian Ocean.
About 40 kilometres offshore from Tanzania, the semi-autonomous island state of Zanzibar is in great demand, but not yet overrun by visitors. The island drew some 300,000 tourists last year. In contrast to Mauritius or the Maldives, Zanzibar still has its own distinct identity.
The sudden construction boom is “a sign of opening up,” says Said Salim, 52, a home owner. “The race among the investors is under way.”
For 200 years, the Muslim-majority island belonged to the Sultanate of Oman. But then, in 1964, it was forcefully united along with the socialist mainland state Tanganyika to create the new state of Tanzania. Three-fourths of the old town centre was nationalised. But things did not work out. Instead of justice, there came decay.
Zanzibar City, with its old centre known as Stone Town, was founded more than 1,000 years ago and is now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
Visitors enjoy the city’s run-down charm, for example on the rooftop terrace of the legendary Emerson on Hurumzi hotel, where Bill Clinton and Johnny Depp have enjoyed Arab snacks washed down by a Chardonnay. And so the message is clear: Go to Zanzibar while it is still genuine.
The area is called Stone Town because the some 2,000 protected buildings – former Arab sultans’ palaces, Indian trading houses and small shops – are all made from coral stone. Most of the buildings are 100 to 150 years old.
The entire city is like an open-air museum – and yet, it is also very lively. An annual open air festival of African music, “Sauti za Busara” (Swahili for “sounds of wisdom”), draws 20,000 visitors. In the shops, young designers are creating trendy Afro-style clothing items.
Zanzibar is polishing its appearance, but not entirely voluntarily. “The upswing in tourism and the pressure by the United Nations brought the turnaround,” says veteran parliamentarian Parmuk Singh.
As a result of UNESCO threatening in 2016 to take Zanzibar off its list of World Cultural Heritage Sites due to negligence, public greenery zones such as the Jamhuri Garden Park are being cleaned up for the first time in years.
Applications have been filed for dozens of new hotel licenses for the old town centre, locals say. Private investors are taking an interest in areas that were previously inert.
Renowned architect Abdul Sheriff says it is already too late to rescue the World Cultural Heritage Site status. “Eighty-five per cent of the old city has been irrevocably lost,” he says. Of all places, the majestic “House of Miracles” church remains closed for the time being, in danger of collapsing.
Elsewhere, investor hyperactivity is creating some eyesores. The new luxury Park Hyatt hotel on the periphery of the old city centre – which is under monument protection – has destroyed the skyline of old Zanzibar, according to UNESCO evaluators, who have demanded a partial dismantling of the new building.
Many vacationers in Zanzibar are surprised by the archipelago’s history. They are faced with a choice: a city vacation with a bit of beach, or a beach holiday with trips to the city? Island insiders advise a mixture of both. Although one can go bathing on the city beach, the true dream beaches are to be found on the northern and eastern coasts.
Zanzibar has long been a destination for travellers with big wallets. And they want to be pampered, such as in the “Mrembo” spa in Zanzibar City. Spa boss Stefanie Schoetz, who has been living here for the past 15 years, admits that she is worried about the changes in the city.
“In ten years’ time, there probably won’t be any more local residents able to live in the old city centre,” the Dutch-German woman says.
Local journalist Faridi Hamid does not see things so negatively. He believes that socialism and tourism, veils and bikinis will also peacefully coexist in the future on Zanzibar. — dpa