Guides and the 'Papaasi'
Nearly all tourists who come to Zanzibar Town use the services of a guide at some stage during their visit. If you come on an organised tour arranged at home, this will of course include the services of a guide. Even if you arrange something simple through a tour company on the spot, like a trip to the spice plantations, the price always includes a guide to show you around. Guides from reputable companies have to be registered with the Tourism Commission, and will carry identity cards.
There are also many other guides in Zanzibar who are not registered. Most of these are not really guides at all, but touts and hustlers who make their money showing tourists to hotels and souvenir shops, arranging transport or getting groups together to share boat rides. These touts are known locally as beach-boys or papaasi
– literally meaning 'ticks', ie: parasites or irritating blood-suckers.
When a ship comes into Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam, there is usually a group of papaasi on the dockside. Some can be quite aggressive, but a few are not too unpleasant and will help you find a place to stay (which may be useful, as the labyrinth of alleys in Stone Town is disorientating at first). Tell them exactly what you want in terms of standard and price. It should not cost you any more money (the papaasi get a commission from the hotel) and could save you a lot of walking.
Unfortunately, this plan does not always work, as some hotels pay more commission than others, and some do not pay at all, so the papaasi will only take you to the places where they get a decent cut. We have heard from several travellers who arrived on Zanzibar, aiming to stay in a certain hotel only to be told by the welcome party of papaasi that it was 'full', 'closed' or even 'burnt down'. If you're in any doubt, it is best to be polite but firm (or simply ignore them completely), and find your own hotel. Even better, make a phone call or send an email to reserve a room in advance; some hotels even give discounts for advance bookings.
After arranging your hotel, most papaasi will want to be your 'guide', offering to show you around the sights or souvenir shops of Stone Town, find companions for dive trips or boat excursions, or arrange transport to the east coast. Use these services if you need them but be prepared to pay if necessary, or be aware that the owners of the souvenir shops, boats and dive centres will have to pay commission to the papaasi, a charge which will of course be passed on to you.
Some papaasi are outright crooks, and involved in robberies and other crimes like drug dealing. Others are con-men, and some travellers have been stung arranging budget hire cars where a papaasi has taken a deposit then simply disappeared. Changing money is another potentially expensive operation, where initially tempting good rates precede sleight-of-hand tricks or simply snatch and run theft. Budget travellers have also reported having drugs planted on them by papaasi they befriended, who then reported them to the police; any fines (official or unofficial) paid out included a kickback to the informant.
If you deal only with reputable tour companies (whether low or high budget) you'll have none of these problems. Although trustworthy guides have identity cards, some papaasi have managed to get some too (they could be fakes, or simply stolen – it's hard to tell). This of course is confusing for tourists. There is a need for legitimate guides on Zanzibar, who can help tourists without hassling them, and it is hoped that the government department responsible for tourism will apply itself to this matter in the near future.