As a solo traveler, I am used to making my own research every time before heading to an unknown destination. But this time, with Zanzibar, I was super diligent and thorough and did the “homework” precisely. In a time when the whole world is under the COVID-19 restrictions, Zanzibar and Tanzania remained some of the few places considered coronavirus free, and the interest in them is expectedly high. Also, while in Europe it’s heavily snowing (almost everywhere), the Zanzibari dry summer season is quite appealing. So, here I am, moving to Zanzibar.
Prior to my departure, I read plenty of recent articles and comments from travelers who just went to Zanzibar. My impression was that due to the volume of arrivals there are endless queues in front of the immigration desks at the airport. Also, I found some services that seemed to be offered at the airport unbelievably expensive and tried to prepare myself in the best possible way. Thank God, most of the arrangements made in advance with tour agencies did not work due to their greed, delays, or attempts to scam me. Based on my own experience, I tried to compress the most important you need to know, prior to your Zanzibari trip.
For European Union citizens the visa is available upon arrival, regardless if you are landing in Zanzibar or in the Tanzanian capital Dar Es Salaam. The cost of the visa is 50 USD for a single entry. At the moment you enter the airport terminal, you will be guided to fill in two forms. The first one requires your personal data from the passport, details about your flight, and the address you are going to stay in Zanzibar.
The second paper contains questions about your health condition, so make sure all the questions related to the COVID-19 symptoms are answered with NO and hopefully, you have not traveled to heavily impacted by coronavirus countries prior to your Zanzibari trip. Both completed papers along with your passport should be submitted to the immigration officer who sits behind an acrylic screen. Once your data is transferred to the computer, you will get back your passport along with the form and should go to the cashier to pay for the visa.
Here comes the trick. Make sure you have 50 USD cash, preferably one whole banknote. The queue for the desk where the visa is paid in cash is much shorter than the one where you pay by debit or credit card. Once the visa is paid, you should move to another counter to get your passport stamped (that’s the visa). Usually, the officers require your fingerprint but in my case, they skipped that procedure and I was released to enter the country with my 3 months visa stamp in the passport. The entire procedure of receiving the visa took me about 15 minutes.
The preferred currency in Zanzibar and Tanzania are two:
- Tanzanian Shilling – TZS
- American Dollar – USD
You can pay everywhere by both; they are both equally accepted but make sure all dollars are “young” emissions, after the year 2006. I have no idea why, but the locals do not accept dollars issued before this year. Also, better collect prior to your travel banknotes of small nominal – 1, 5, 10, and 20 USD.
What to be cautious about:
+ Euro is also accepted but the rate is not in your favor at all. The available in USD and TZS price is usually converted into Euro through the local rate which is not comparable with the official one. The outcome is much more expensive in Euro. So, my advice is – avoid paying in Euro!
+ Debit/Credit cards are widely accepted but there is a commission of 5% on top of it, so the final amount withdrawn from your card will be higher and not in your favor at all.
+ In case you are carrying Euro, the best place to exchange them for Tanzanian Shillings is at the airport. I know, I know. Usually, the airports worldwide offer the least attractive rate for exchange but not in Zanzibar. The other exchange options are located in Stone Town but the rate is not that good as at the airport.
+ Keeping Tanzanian Shillings in the pocket is much easier to bargain (I’ll tell you about this later) because in the local currency you have the chance to get your change, but no one is going to give you back the change in 1 or 2 USD. So, I strongly recommend considering most of your payments in Tanzanian Shillings.
+ All local vendors prefer cash payments. You will find yourself helpless going to the market for buying fruits (a huge variety and it’s worth it) and trying to pay them by credit card. It doesn’t work at all. Make sure you have cash enough while planning your trip.
Most of the travelers who are organizing a Zanzibari visit by themselves prefer to go from the airport directly to Zanzibar City, the main town on the island, where the famous Stone Town is located. The distance between the airport and Stone Town is about 7 km. The battle between the drivers is for every new arrival, so if you are wise enough it’s easy to negotiate a better transfer rate right at the airport. Do not forget, everything in Zanzibar could be negotiated and there is no such thing as a fixed price.
I was about to make the biggest mistake by trying to arrange my airport transfer prior to the trip. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable while arriving at an unknown place, knowing no one there. So, I did the same. Contacted several local tour agencies and the offered via email rate varied from 25 USD to15 USD. I was still hesitant because it seemed to me too expensive for a single person and a 7 km distance. I asked the agents to confirm a transfer for 10 USD and one of them did it. But on the day of my arrival, no one came to the airport to pick me up. And thank God for it!
Going out of the airport there is an army of drivers waiting for the newly arrived passengers. I chose a guy who was staying with a big board right at the airport terminal exit, offering rates for airport transfers. It was displayed “Stone Town transfer -15 USD”. I told him I am alone with just this bag and can pay for a transfer 15 000 TZS only (7 USD). He agreed and shortly, I found myself in a spotless modern minivan, driven by a courteous Zanzibari man called Mohammed who not only drove me safely and quickly to my hotel in Stone Town but also directed me about the important landmarks or facts along the way. Great service provided right at the airport and I am so grateful.
I read a number of articles where the authors warn that the WIFI in Zanzibar is hard to find, or not reliable, or working slowly if it’s available at all. Planning to stay for at least a month, I decided that upon my arrival I should buy a local sim card for solving the Internet issue. The best options are Vodacom (for the continental part of Tanzania) and Zantel (the best if you spend all your time in Zanzibar).
Do not make the mistake to buy your Zantel SIM card at the airport!!! I found this in time. The price at the airport is offered in Euro and is much much higher than the one you are going to get in Vuga Zantel Office, located in Stone Town. At the airport for the same package of calls and 3G Internet, I got offered 35 Euro. In the official Zantel office in Stone Town, the price was 31 000 TZS = 11 Euro. The validity is 30 days. In addition, the Zantel office in the town surprised me with its modern looks, cleanliness, and good English speaking staff.
It’s easy to find the office located in Vuga street, nearby the Old Portuguese Arch.
Most of the native locals speak English but I consider it a polite and kind gesture of courtesy to pre-learn some simple words of the local language that shows respect and could give you an advantage in a particular situation. In Tanzania the widely spoken language is Swahili. Here comes my short language course with the most useful words for tourists:
Jambo/Mambo – Hello
Karibu – Welcome
Asante – Thank you
Asante Sana – Thank you very much
Hakuna Matata – No problem
Kwaheri – Bye
Habari za asubuhi – Good morning
Nataka – I want
Sitaki – I don’t want
Maji – Water
It’s full of Arabic words in Swahili so if you speak Arabic you can use it quite successfully. For example, the numbers in Swahili sounded familiar to me and when I got deeper, I realized most of them are Arabic.
90% of the Zanzibari population are Muslim. So, beware of your dress code, especially the women while in Stone Town. The locals are quite open-minded and enormously friendly, but the sleeveless tops and shorts are considered inappropriate. No one is going to publicly judge you but the impression you give may lead to inappropriate behavior (in minor cases).
I feel very safe and even cherished in Zanzibar, but I show respect to the local culture and never give a reason for the opposite. Just take a scarf wherever you go, it might be quite useful as a shoulder cover. Thin breathable summer trousers are preferable to shorts during the Stone Town visit. Out of it, when you are going to the seaside resorts in Kiwengwa, Matemwe, Nungwi, Kendwa, or Paje the usual European beach outfit is pretty Okay.
The above are my recommendations and useful hacks to know prior to a journey to Zanzibar. I hope this info brings clarity and assists in upcoming trips to Zanzibar. I am going to tour the island in the next days and to respectively share more information and stories about my exciting adventures. See you soon 🙂