The downside of tourism for the Tanzanian poor

On a trip to a tropical paradise, Peter Hatherley-Greene finds curious parallels to life in the UAE

The beauty of Zanzibar's beaches can obscure more subtle ways that tourism has affected the country (Courtesy: Melia Zanzibar)
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My wife and I recently travelled to Zanzibar for a week's holiday. After three days in Stone Town, the capital, we moved to a beach resort on the east coast.

The beach seemed endless and covered in fine talcum-like white sand and fringed by green-topped coconut trees bending at impossible angles, perhaps saluting the brilliant Indian Ocean waters. It was stunning and perfect.

On the first afternoon, we went for a walk along the beach. We noticed rows of small shops at the top of the beach, each with a young adult male standing in front, beckoning to us to buy a souvenir.

After an hour, we decided to turn around and head back to our resort due to the failing light. A large crowd of youths had gathered to watch some kitesurfers.

Becoming slightly annoyed at the constant invitations to us into their shops, I told one of them that we would come back tomorrow. As we took our first steps away from this group, I heard a reply, heavy with sarcasm, from a young man sitting nearby: “Yeah right, I don’t think so.”

Frankly, it shocked me. This was then followed by one of the youths coming up to us, demanding that we buy something from him so he could eat that night.

Feeling decidedly uncomfortable and not wishing to walk back in the dark, we walked down to the relative safety of the flatter area near the sea.

We made it safely back to the resort but we agreed that this was one of the first times in all of our many years of travelling that we felt truly threatened.

The next day, we headed in the opposite direction, towards an unknown point on the endless beach.

After an hour of walking, we approached a village among the trees. My wife was swamped by a tsunami of little children, all with their hands up, shouting: “Jambo mama, money?” (Hello mother – any money?)

Some of the older children spoke quite good English, so I asked them why we should give them money. At this, they immediately looked sheepish, averted their eyes, offered no response and then ran away back to a crowd of older villagers seated together under the shady trees.

That night, we shared our two experiences with Marco, the hotel manager.

He explained that the taxes from all the tourist providers on the island are used to gift land to each family on the island to build a house and to grow food. While their primary needs are met, most of the locals appeared desperately poor although not obviously hungry. Surrounding the resort is a village from which Marco employs local staff and trains youngsters to become waiters, gardeners and cleaners. He pays each family a small stipend to keep their houses and gardens clean and tidy because the access road to the resort winds its way through the village.

In this way, tourism money directly and positively affects the local people.

Concerning our difficult interactions with the children on the beach, he explained that he advises his guests not to hand out money. Why? Parents send their children to beg money from tourists, which means they stay away from school.

On the final day, we sought out a beach restaurant recommended to us by some British tourists we met in a neighbouring resort.

Juma, the chef, came from the local area. After finishing high school, he left to study cooking at a training college in Stone Town. He had found work ever since, both on Zanzibar and other islands. Juma was not poor, as he and his wife were sending their children to a private school.

I told Juma about our experiences on the beach and he raised the negative effects of tourism on the local people. What he described was “learnt helplessness”, a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness arising from an awareness that they have no control over their situation, often leading people to overlook opportunities for relief or change.

I explained to Juma that I had observed similar behaviour in the UAE by youth suffering the disempowering effects of wealth and privilege.

How extraordinary that this phenomenon occurs in two very different societies at both extreme ends of wealth.

To me, it is important to explore change theory by examining more closely the assumption that, when tourism growth occurs, those living in extreme poverty benefit from earning more money in tourism employment.

The World Travel and Tourism Council’s global report for 2015 noted that travel and tourism generated US$7.6 trillion (10 per cent of global GDP) and 277 million jobs (1 in 11 jobs) for the global economy in 2014. In comparison, Tanzania’s tourism contributed only 5.1 per cent to its GDP even while tourism employment contributed 12.2 per cent of total employment or 1.3 million jobs (1 in 9 jobs).

So while tourism plays a significant part in the Tanzanian economy and society, I am unsure whether the golden promise of globalisation, based upon trickle-down theory, is actually working. To me, the phrase “jambo mama, money?” represents the true hidden cost of tourism on the island.

Dr Peter J Hatherley-Greene is director of learning at Emarise