Travel company founder aims to lure Arabian Gulf tourists to Zanzibar

Hafsa Mbamba of Grassroots Traveller reveals why she and her home island Zanzibar want to attract more Gulf tourists.
Hafsa Mbamba of Grassroots Traveller. Courtesy Grassroots Traveller
Hafsa Mbamba of Grassroots Traveller. Courtesy Grassroots Traveller

Hafsa Mbamba was born and grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark, but the cold Scandinavian country could not keep her there for long. So she followed the footsteps of her Zanzibari parents to return to the Indian Ocean island and turned her passion for travelling into a profession. The 30-year-old opened a destination management company called Grassroots Traveller in Zanzibar in 2011, and is now trying to draw tourists from the Arabian Gulf.

The number of visitors from this region is on the low side. So why are you targeting them?

Historically there has been strong ties between Zanzibar and the region, especially Oman. A lot of people from the Gulf have second homes in Zanzibar. Moreover, the Gulf is a cosmopolitan region and all nationalities are present here. So, it’s a no-brainer to me that we should try to attract tourists from the Gulf. Currently, the number of Gulf tourists is insignificant.

Gulf tourists are considered high-spending travellers. Is that a reason as well?

Certainly. Zanzibar is trying to be a luxury destination and we have a handful of upmarket hotels. I like to call it “rustic luxury”, different from the Maldives or Seychelles. It has a charm of its own. We started late in destination marketing but we are getting there. Zanzibar is more laid-back and there is more mingling with the local community. That’s because according to Zanzibar’s tourism policy, we are trying to reduce enclave tourism where tourists remain in the resorts. At most high-end resorts, visitors do remain separate from the local community, but we want the visitors to explore the area and be a bit more adventurous. There is a trend in travelling for charity. Families want to explore out-of-the ordinary experiences and we try to incorporate NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. In April 2012, the government amended the tourism policy to create tourism for all, besides conserving the cultural values and the environment.

Is access an issue in attracting tourists to Zanzibar?

I don’t think so. Oman Air started direct flights to Zanzibar in 2011. Qatar Airways and Emirates Airline both have direct flights to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania [of which Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region]. Also, the trade links are strong between the two regions. Most imports from Zanzibar tend to be from Dubai.

Gulf tourists tend to stay in luxury accommodation and travel with families. How developed is this segment in Zanzibar?

We have a few luxury accommodation options, including a Doubletree by Hilton. But there are a lot more independent luxury boutique hotels that have that extra charm of Swahili and Zanzibari touches. These include properties such as Konokono Beach Resort on the eastern coast and Kasha Boutique on the coast and Kisiwa House in Stone Town. There is a trend towards boutique style-hotels and that’s where we want to attract the Gulf tourists. These tend to have fewer rooms but also less noisy. Also, there is a trend towards villas in resorts for accommodating families. In fact, some existing hotels are changing their style and upgrading from mid-range to luxury accommodation.

Island destinations tend to be expensive. How is that affecting the local community?

All islands are expensive because you tend to import everything. The government here is trying to improve other industries, such as agriculture, to reduce the import of vegetables.

The rise in the number of international tourists to Zanzibar was incremental from 2012 to 2013, rising by just over 6,000. Why is that?

The economic crisis did not hit Zanzibar directly but if you look at the nationalities of the tourists here, Italians are our main market. Their numbers have decreased dramatically – going down by 5,000 from 2012 to 2013. The number of tourists from the United Kingdom has decreased as well. The decline in the number of sea port arrivals could be attributed to the fact that airlines are offering better rates.

How long do travellers to the island tend to stay?

Honeymooners stay for five to seven nights, while secondary tourists, who come from Tanzania, stay for five nights. Now, there is a boom in the younger generation who come here to learn Swahili and they stay for 10 to 14 nights.

Published: January 19, 2014 04:00 AM


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