There is one place that is quite unlike any other in Tanzania – Zanzibar. It is a place that is rich in culture, diversity, and history. Walking along its narrow streets gives you an unmistakable feeling that you are witnessing something truly special – greatness.
About a millennium ago, several Bantu groups from the mainland started to migrate to Zanzibar. Some of them formed towns which grew to become trading centres connecting traders from Persia, India, and the Middle East with those from continental Africa as far inland as the Zambezi. The cross-fertilisation of diverse African and Asian cultures ultimately gave birth to the Swahili culture.
When the Portuguese arrived in the early 1500s, Zanzibar was already an established trading centre in the region. By the 1800s, it had become considerably wealthy from gold, ivory, and the slave trade. The introduction of clove production, and the subsequent decision by Seyyid Said, the Sultan of Oman, to move his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1840, catapulted Zanzibar’s position in the region and beyond forward, permanently imprinting Zanzibar’s brand in people’s minds the world over.
But time hasn’t been kind to Zanzibar. Despite its best efforts, per capita income is a little over $1,000, and nearly one in two Zanzibaris sits below the poverty line. When compared to other small island developing states (SIDS) on the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar lags far behind the likes of Maldives, Mauritius, Singapore, and the Seychelles.
When Zanzibar unveiled its plan to build the Zanzibar Domino Commercial Centre at the cost of $1.3 billion a fortnight ago, it made analysts ask questions about its economic future. Proposed to be built on an artificial island 15 kilometres from Stone Town and at 70 storeys high, Domino will be Africa’s second tallest building, next only to Iconic Tower in Egypt, whose construction started in 2018. At almost twice Zanzibar’s annual budget, Domino is a strong statement of intent from Zanzibar, evoking comparisons to Dubai’s Burj Al Arab and associated business model.
Is that the direction that Zanzibar is taking? The recent emphasis on blue economy appears to suggest that. However, is Zanzibar capable of reaching Dubai’s heights? This is the question that I asked a number of speakers, including senior government officials from Zanzibar – the Minister of State in the President’s Office (Economy and Investment), Hon Mudrik Ramadhan Soraga; Dr Said Seif Mzee, Director General, Zanzibar State Trading Corporation (ZSTC); and Dr Abdullah Mohammed, Director General, Zanzibar Commission for Tourism – during a recent online event.
To highlight Zanzibar’s economic transformation potential, the isles managed to increase the number of tourist arrivals from 152,000 to 600,000 in the past five or so years. According to one source, there are 500 tourist hotels in Zanzibar, where at least 20 are four or five-star hotels – probably the largest concentration of such hotels in Tanzania – with tourism contributing about 30 percent of GDP. The Covid pandemic aside, this highlights what tourism alone can do to transform Zanzibar.
Like Dubai, Zanzibar enjoys many comparative advantages which can help it gain a competitive advantage over others. These include its location, history, geography, culture, and people. Taking history, for example, Zanzibar’s strong connections with the Middle East, India, and southeast Asia can be used to position it strategically as an international tourist, trading, logistics, and shopping centre. Even today, many people go to Zanzibar to shop. That is something that can be strengthened. Altogether, the potential is massive.
In many ways, the dynamics between Zanzibar and Mainland Tanzania are like the dynamics that have existed between Hong Kong and Mainland China. In 1980, Hong Kong had an equivalent of 15 percent of China’s GDP. In 2020, despite increasing 18 times, Hong Kong’s GDP was only two percent that of China. But meanwhile, Hong Kong had served a great function as an economic revival model for China. For example, it inspired the Chinese Special Economic Zone (SEZ) model, which led to the rise of cities such as Shenzhen. In 2019, Shenzhen which was only a small village in 1980, overtook Hong Kong’s GDP.
While Zanzibar doesn’t compare to Tanzania’s GDP the way Hong Kong compared to China, the example highlights how a strong autonomous state can do for the rest of the nation. Its performance can bring the practices of the greater society in much better contrast, highlighting mediocrity and failure, thus inspiring change.
Compared to the rest of Tanzania, Zanzibar is a much bigger brand, with the possible exception of Kilimanjaro and Serengeti. A stronger Zanzibar implies a more visible Tanzania, a fact which can have a far greater multiplier effect for the nation. Similarly, Zanzibar’s deeper cultural and historical connections to Middle Eastern and other communities can be used to attract and enrich Tanzanian culture and the economy significantly. Indeed, the complementarity and rivalry that a strong Zanzibar will bring is something that ought to be embraced rather than shunned.
In a number of ways, Zanzibar can be seen as a spark for change for the rest of Tanzania, an inspiration that can lead to big leaps forward.
A strong Zanzibar is good for Tanzania.