For the people of Zanzibar, fishing and farming are the main economic activities. From the beginning of the 19th century to the mid-1970s Zanzibar exported a large proportion of the world's supply of cloves, and the islands' economy was based largely on this commodity. Some diversification has occurred since then as the world market price for cloves fell dramatically in the 1980s, but cloves are still a major export, along with coconut products and other spices. In recent years, seaweed has also become an important export commodity. The potential for tourism to be a major earner of foreign currency has been recognised and this is being developed.
In 1989, seaweed farming was introduced on the east coast of Unguja (Zanzibar island) and has since become a vital source of income for coastal villagers. The seaweed is planted and tended on beach areas between the high- and low-water marks (see sustainable seaweed farming box, page 225). It is harvested and dried, collected in Zanzibar town, and then exported to several countries in Europe and Asia for use as a food thickener or stabiliser. Seaweed is now a valuable addition to Zanzibar's traditional exports of coconuts, cloves and other spices. (for details on cloves and coconuts see boxes.)
Despite the success with seaweed, exports are limited, and Zanzibar imports many basic foodstuffs, including rice (from Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, China and the USA), maize (from mainland Tanzania), cooking oil (from Kenya, Tanzania, Singapore and Dubai), sugar (from Brazil), plus wheat and flour (from France, Germany and the USA). Other imports include mineral water (from the Gulf states) and beer (from Denmark).
The first half of the 1990s saw a dramatic increase in the development of tourism. The Zanzibar commission for tourism was founded in 1987 to promote zanzibar as a tourist destination, and in 1992 the Zanzibar investment promotion agency was created to encourage overseas investment, particularly in tourism projects.
In 1995, over 56,000 visitors were arriving in Zanzibar each year – contributing an estimated US$1,971 million to the economy. By the end of 2005, numbers had exceeded 100,000 visitors per year for the first time. Tourist arrivals to Pemba and the Mafia Archipelago remain insignificant by comparison.
While far below the figures recorded by countries like Kenya, these figures show that Zanzibar's tourism industry has changed gear since the early 1980s. Tourism currently represents about 20% of Zanzibar's gross domestic product (GDP), which contrasts with cloves, which account for around 45% of GDP. Whilst export earnings from this traditional commodity fall (for more details see the Cloves box in the Flora section on page 48), the income from tourism is rising to plug the gap. Some observers expect it to be Zanzibar's largest generator of foreign exchange within about a decade.
It's not all good news though. Although tourism has obvious financial benefits, it isn't always managed sustainably. For years beach sand was used for construction, leading to problems of erosion. Mangrove poles used in new buildings are seldom sustainably harvested, resulting in a reduction in mangroves and an acceleration of coastal erosion.
Fresh water is very precious on low-lying islands like these, and there is evidence of groundwater depletion; water levels in wells used by villagers for generations have dropped. One survey claimed that on average, tourists use 180 litres of water per day (this of course includes all use – washing, laundry, hotel cleaning, etc) compared with the average local Zanzibari's consumption of less than 40 litres. There is also concern about over-fishing, particularly for crab, lobster, squid and octopus, to supply a growing number of restaurants catering for tourists.
Most pragmatic observers agree that it's not tourism which is the problem per se; it's the sustainability of those tourism developments. It's all about how responsible the tourism enterprises are with the resources and culture of the islands. This issue of 'sustainability' and 'responsible tourism' is moving up the agenda, as witnessed by consciously responsible lodges like Chumbe Island and Mafia's Chole Mjini, but there's a long way to go before all of the hotels and lodges match the high standards set by these.
Officially, the government recognises this problem, and back in 1992 introduced a National Environmental Policy for Zanzibar, stressing that the quality of life of the Zanzibaris should not be harmed by the destruction of their environment, and that cultural and biological diversity should be preserved. In the words of President Salmin Amour, 'unchecked development could soon become unsustainable for our people and our small islands'.
There are certainly more checks on developments than there used to be. For example, a developer needs to apply for specific permission to take any sand for any reason – even to use small amounts to lay beside a swimming pool. We must hope that environmental restrictions like this gather momentum, while as visitors we can do our best to act as responsibly towards Zanzibar's environment and cultures.