General information about Zanzibar, the Spice Islands
Zanzibar is an archipelago about 86 km long and 39 km wide. It’s formed by two main islands, Unguja (commonly known as Zanzibar) and Pemba, as well as several smaller islands including Mafia, Chumbe, and Mnemba Island.
The population is approximately 1 million, with the official language Kiswahili. About 98% of the population are Muslims, the other 2% are Christians or Hindus.
Zanzibar’s International Airport lies about 5 kilometers south of Zanzibar City (including its old quarter of Stone Town, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.).
Tourism and spices are Zanzibar’s main industries. Zanzibar is often still referred to as the Spice Islands due to the production of cloves, nutmeg, pepper, and cinnamon.
Wifi is widely available throughout the island, but the signal can be intermittent.
Zanzibar’s history was greatly shaped by its geography, the prevailing winds of the region placing it directly on the Indian Ocean trade routes, and making it accessible to both traders and colonists from Arabia, South Asia, and the African mainland. The first immigrants were the Africans; the next was the Persians, who began to land in Zanzibar in the 10th century and who, over a brief period, became absorbed into the local population and disappeared as a separate group. Their influence was left in the gradual consolidation of disparate villages and rural populations into what came to be recognized as two peoples, the Hadimu and the Tumbatu. This African-Persian population converted to Islam and adopted many Persian traditions. (Even today, most of Zanzibar’s African population calls itself “Shirazi,” in an echo of the ancient Persian principality of Shīrāz, from which the earliest Persians came.)
Arabs had the deepest influence on Zanzibar because the island’s position made it a perfect entrepôt for Arabs mounting slave expeditions into Africa and conducting oceangoing commerce. Arabs from Oman became especially important, for they began establishing colonies of merchants and landowners in Zanzibar. Eventually, they became the aristocracy of the island.
The Portuguese then came in the 16th century and conquered all the seaports on the eastern African coast, including Mombasa, the richest and most powerful, as well as such islands as Zanzibar and parts of the Arabian coast, including the Omani capital of Muscat. The purpose of the Portuguese, however, was largely commercial rather than politically imperial, and, when their power dwindled in the course of the 17th century, they left few marks of their stay.
The Omani Arabs, who expelled the Portuguese from Muscat in 1650 and were the leading force against them in the entire region, gradually established at least nominal control over many settlements, including Zanzibar. After a lengthy turmoil of dynastic wars and losses and gains on the African coast, the ruling sultan of Oman, Saʿīd ibn Sulṭān, decided to relocate his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar. The rapid expansion of the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, caused by the demand for plantation slaves in North and South America, made Zanzibar central to the slave (as well as the ivory) trade routes into the interior of Africa. Zanzibar itself also had significant resources of coconuts, cloves, and foodstuffs. The sultan of Oman made it his capital in 1832.
In 1861 Zanzibar was separated from Oman and became an independent sultanate, which controlled the vast African domains acquired by Saʿīd. Under the sultan Barghash (reigned 1870–88), however, Great Britain and Germany divided most of Zanzibar’s territory on the African mainland between them and secured economic control over the remaining coastal strip. In 1890 the British proclaimed a protectorate over Zanzibar itself, which lasted for more than 70 years; the sultan’s authority was reduced and the slave trade curtailed. During that time most sultans were aligned with the British. One notable exception was Khālid ibn Barghash, who seized the throne upon the death of his uncle, Ḥamad ibn Thuwayn, on August 25, 1896. The British, interested in installing their own candidate as sultan, issued an ultimatum to Khālid: either stand down by 9:00 AM on August 27 or be at war with Great Britain. Khālid refused to step down, and the Anglo-Zanzibar War began. The brief battle between Khālid’s supporters and the British Royal Navy took less than an hour and is considered the shortest war in recorded history. After Khālid’s defeat, the British-supported Ḥamud ibn Moḥammed was installed as sultan.
In 1963 the sultanate regained its independence, becoming a member of the British Commonwealth. In January 1964 a revolt by leftists overthrew the sultanate and established a republic. The revolution marked the overthrow of the island’s long-established Arab ruling class by the Africans, who were the majority of the population. In April the presidents of Zanzibar and Tanganyika signed an act of union of their two countries, creating what later in the year was named Tanzania.
Lying just south of the equator, Zanzibar has a tropical climate and is hot and humid all year round – perfect for a beach holiday!
From October to March, temperatures average 31-33 degrees Celsius. The arrival of Kuzi (wind) in April brings in the long rains, where it can rain every day until May/early June. In between the rain showers, it’s generally still sunny and hot.
From June to August the winds are stronger, cooling the temperatures to around 26 degrees Celsius. Temperatures at night never drop below 19 degrees Celsius, even in the coolest months. The arrival of the Kazkazi winds in November and December bring the short rains, which are normally light and don’t last long., followed by the return of the sunshine.
Rain in Zanzibar generally comes in short, sharp showers in the morning or afternoon, followed by the return of the sunshine.
Visa and entry requirements
Most visas are obtainable on arrival at Zanzibar International Airport for US$50 CASH per person (American Citizens pay US$100 for their visas). You can also get Visas on entry at Dar es Salaam and Kilimanjaro International Airports.
All visitors require a passport that is valid for 6 months after departure and has at least two clear pages.
* NB: Visa costs and requirements are subject to change, so please double-check with your embassy before you travel.
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.)
Please note if you are paying by credit card: many hotels and resorts add up to 6% commission for credit card payments.
The national language is Kiswahili, though English is widely spoken.
Health and safety
Visitors to Zanzibar may be required to have a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate when they enter the country. Malaria prophylaxis is also recommended.
NB: See your travel doctor for recommended inoculations and health advice.
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 a safe country, and most locals are friendly and honest. But avoid flaunting wealth by wearing expensive jewelry or waving camera equipment around. Avoid walking alone on isolated beaches at night.
Important cultural considerations
Zanzibar has a long history of religious tolerance and although the islands are 98% Muslim, alcohol, and tobacco are freely available. Show respect for the culture of Zanzibar by dressing modestly and refraining from public displays of affection. When walking in Stone Town or villages, women should wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees. Men should not walk bare-chested. 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.
There are amazing photographic opportunities in Zanzibar, but it’s a courtesy to ask people if you want to take a picture of them.
Life in Zanzibar is centered on the ocean… the locals fish for food and as a source of income, and swimming, snorkeling, diving, and kite surfing are at the heart of most tourists’ holidays.
Zanzibar is one of the few places left where Green turtles come to lay their eggs and dolphins can be seen swimming wild.
Please help preserve the reefs – don’t pick up starfish or shells (or buy shells from beach sellers, as this encourages them.)
Look only with your eyes and leave no trace other than your footprints.
As you stroll through Stone Town, you will find several shops selling wood carvings, Zanzibari chests, clothes, spices, jewellery, paintings, and antiques. Most of the gift shops are situated along Kenyatta Road in Shangani, and Gizenga Street behind the Old Fort. Tourists are advised not to buy any products related to protected species on the islands, such as seashells and turtles. A holiday to Zanzibar would be incomplete without visiting these souvenir shops.
Things you should be aware of Zanzibar
Time Zone: GMT + 3
International Dialing code: + 255
Electricity: 220 – 240 V AC, 50 Hz