The road to Michamvi Sunset Bay Resort is bumpy. A sign by the tarmac road points into a green and dusty wilderness, and suddenly the car falls into the potholes, which the rain prepared for it. A few smaller houses and convenient fruit stands pass by, and there it is.
A gate separates the dirt road from a front yard, which at first resembles the courtyard of an English lord, but in fact is one of the island’s high-end resorts.
Michamvi Kae village and the luxurious resort next to it seem like belonging to two different worlds, but the managing director of the resort Brad Cousens, 45, perceives the resort as part of the village.
“Without knowing anyone from the village you would be isolated. You would be an island on an island. And you want to be part of the community,” he says.
Since he arrived in Zanzibar in 2010 from his home country South Africa, he has tried to run the resort as a business integrated into island life. Previously the business did not take a social or local stance, but now the dinners are composed of fish, vegetables and fruits from the nearby village, while much of the staff is also from the village. “Some of the hotels import a container full of salt from somewhere. I don’t think that is right. We should get it in Zanzibar,” he says.
He considers himself a guest in the fishing community of Michamvi, and while he is here, it matters to show the hosts respect rather than just accumulate a fortune. “I want people to say good things about me when I leave. I would rather have a legacy of saying ‘he was a good guy’ than a pocket full of money,” Brad Cousens says.
Tourism’s flip side
Michamvi Sunset Bay Resort is not the only tourism enterprise on Unguja Island that has sensed a change in the time and adopted a business model friendlier to its surroundings.
One of the initiatives is a group of smaller hotels that have started performing clean-ups along the stretches of beach near Paje on the island’s east coast. According to one of the organizers, 28-year-old Salum King from the hotel Mustapha’s Place, the local environment is an immediate priority.
“But this is just the start. Later we will help the community and tourists can donate to them as well. People here are very poor, so we do this to help them,” he says.
While tourism in Zanzibar, and especially on Unguja Island, has seen a rapid increase during the last years, the islands remain poor. A recent assessment from the World Bank noted a slight drop in poverty rates on Unguja, but a large part of the population continues to exist just around the poverty line with about TSH 400 per adult per day.
All the while, Zanzibar is welcoming over twice as many tourists compared to 2013 with over 370,000 visitors arriving by ferry or plane last year, according to the Zanzibar Commission for Tourism.
From a TED Talk to Unguja
Back at Michamvi Sunset Bay Resort, Brad Cousens has a view over Chwaka Bay and the sun, which slowly sinks into it. This is one of the few hotels on the island’s east coast with a sunset view and guests pay from TSH 600,000 per night to watch it from their veranda or from a beach chair.
The charge of staying here is among the reasons that Brad Cousens can prioritise to pay a recycling company to manage the trash.
“It is expensive, and all hotels don’t want to join in. If many of them did it, perhaps we could get a better deal. But a lot of people still burn rubbish or pay guys who will go and throw it in the forest,” he says.
At the same time, being socially and environmentally conscious is good business. “We do it for the good business, and secondly we do it for the marketing,” Brad Cousens says.
He first got inspired to run the hotel in balance with its surroundings when he saw a TED Talk about the mission to save the environment of islands “one at a time”. Then Zanzibar came to his mind and the first step was to make a social statement by shopping locally. Not just from around the island, but from Michamvi village next door.
Projects need to be community driven
As one of the next things, the resort initiated a farming project in the village, but soon they realised they were off balance.
“Michamvi is a fishing village, not a farming village. We can’t just do things we think are cool. The projects need to be community driven,” Brad Cousens says.
Instead of planting seeds, the hotel hired a teacher from Stone Town to give English lessons in the village. The project ran for a while, and Brad Cousens believes it made a difference for some of the residents. But the company failed to measure and monitor the project and with time it slipped out of their hands.
It has been a while since there were language lessons in the village, and now the hotel offers lessons in English and German to its staff from the village.
Brad Cousens thinks the community is quite aware of its own needs. “Now we tell them: Just give us a list of what you want. If you need a new mosque or something like that, we can help,” he says.
In the bigger picture, sustainable tourism is first and foremost about the encounter between people, he believes. 2017 has been proclaimed as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the UN, and to run a sustainable tourism business, the human interaction matters.
“It is exchange of information. To see that not all Europeans have a lot of money. It is about seeing it differently. Locals are free to talk to guests and tourists are getting a glimpse into their lives. Maybe they will contribute back,” he says about the tours around the village, which the hotel arranges.
Environmentally, the future of tourism lies in the hands of technology, Brad Cousens believes. If he could start again, he would go for a design less demanding of the environment. “I would like to start from the bottom. If you wanted to have A/C for instance, you could do it without electricity and be off the grid,” he says.
TOURISM IN ZANZIBAR
The semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar is popular with foreign tourists, with the historical town and sandy beaches of Unguja Island being major magnets of both backpacker tourists and pre-packaged high-end trips.
After a safari in the Tanzanian national parks, many of these tours choose Unguja as a place of relaxation. The tourist destination is particularly popular with visitors from Italy and Germany.
The Zanzibari government made tourism a priority in 1987 with establishing the Zanzibar Commission for Tourism and in 1992 the Zanzibar Investment Promotion Agency was set down to promote overseas investments in tourism.
In 2013 the Zanzibari government estimated the tourism sector to account for about 20 per cent of Zanzibar’s gross domestic product, but since then the tourism sector has grown steadily.
According to Zanzibar Commission for Tourism, the islands received 181.301 foreign tourists in 2013, while last year 376.242 come to visit the islands.
Sources: Zanzibar Commission for Tourism, Zanzibar Government.