New hotels and restaurants, sensational tourism schemes and all that in the midst of the corona pandemic: There is a gold rush mood from Jambiani to Michamvi.
Even my favourite little 18-room makuti-roofed beach refuge changed during the Corona year. Some guests were (very discreetly though) listening to music from their portable speaker on sunbeds; young couples eagerly conversed with ever-polite waiters in all sorts of languages. Suddenly, a younger and more diverse crowd had populated the evergreen Blue Oyster Hotel in Jambiani, usually a favourite of best-ager Kili trackers – and that was only the start.
More than a dozen new hotels and hotel take-overs, construction everywhere and a first shopping mall on the roadside are changing the South-East Coast of Zanzibar. Clearly, the 22-kilometre stretch of white dream-beach dotted with fishing villages, budget and boutique accommodation and surf hotspot Paje in its centre is on the move. In the midst of the corona pandemic, when the world stood still but Zanzibar left its doors wide open, mainly Eastern Europeans, the suprise tourist of the winter season, have invested here. “We came and got stuck during Corona. Then we decided to start a business here”, is the testimony I heard most often, from small start-ups to aspiring mega-entrepreneurs, from Jambiani to Michamvi.
Jambiani suddenly feels like Kenya’s Diani Beach in its heydays in the eighties. Marta Pietkiewicz, 38, and Christian Pompetti, 44, fall into the first category. The Polish-Italian couple came on a 14-day-holiday, couldn’t leave for six months and decided to make the best of it. They terminated their chef positions in South-London to start Pompetti restaurant in Jambiani’s first mall. The rest of the shopping experience – an eco supermarket with local products, a cosmetic salon and a lawyer’s practice – is still in the making, but Pompetti with natural yeast pizza, freshly marinated sardines and excellent red wine flourished from day one. ”Hard to say how tourism will develop this year in Zanzibar”, the couple expressed amid uncertainty about the current holiday season June-August, “but we are confident.”
“More than confident” is, only a few kilometres away, also Ivan Belomorski, 33, a Bulgarian software entrepreneur, who “got stranded”, too. By the time the island re-opened one year ago in June - earlier than any other holiday destination in the world - “we got our property”, he tells me proudly. It’s a prime piece of beachfront right in the centre of surf hotspot Paje. The Nest, scheduled to open this month, consists of an extravagant wooden 3-storey vegan restaurant in the design of a safari lodge combined with 17 barefoot luxury bungalows. “All workers and all our materials are local”, emphasizes Ivan, a man of big plans and high expectations: “We found them in Arusha and brought them here.” A jungle gym features weight lifting with coconuts. And if all that is not enough he plans a 60-metre wooden beach tower with dinner platforms high above the Indian Ocean. Is he sure, tourists will keep on flocking although the Covid-19 situation is all but resolved? “Whatever we put on the market, gets immediately booked,” Ivan Belomorski claims - at prices between $300 and $800 per night.
“We never had a better season, an incredible turnover”, confirms hotelier Leonie Kaack on the other end of the tourism scale. The 35 year old co-owns New Teddy’s on the Beach, a legendary backpacker resort at the south end of Jambiani with dorm beds starting at $20.
“It’s a gold digger atmosphere here”, says the mother of two says who is married in Zanzibar and has lived here for five years. A Russian holidaymaker from Leningrad knows about his fellow travellers: “Eastern Europeans may arrive on 6oo-dollars-package tours but with 60,000 dollars in their accounts”. Many invested - and changed the atmosphere in Zanzibar. “We’ve seen much more children and families around”, noticed Leonie Kaack. Another trickle-down effect: “East Europeans explore local villages because they like to bargain.”
By far the biggest and controversial investor is Pili Pili (Swahili for hot pepper), a polish enterprise under Wojtek Zabinski, who arrived from Danzig four years ago on a private holiday and bought a small beach house. Since the start of the pandemic he has accumulated 11 hotels along the beach from Jambiani to Bweeju: “We built, buy or lease”, explains Pili Pili spokesperson and Vice-President Przemyslaw Staniszewski who meets me in shorts and T-shirt. The biggest endeavour of the newcomers in tourism has just started, the construction of an oriental holiday estate with 96 beach villa apartments in at sleepy beach of Bweeju – each for around $200,000.
Guests listen to Pili Pili radio, pay with Pili Pili money and more than 40.000 of them follow Pili Pili Zanzibar on facebook. While some observers wonder how the fast ascent has been possible, Stanizeweski dispels any doubt: “Our only secret is that we know our guests very well and look after them”, from chartering airplanes to providing children buggies upon arrival in the tropical paradise. “Polish in Zanzibar form a community, they are very family oriented”, he says. Staniszewski is optimistic; “We will soon provide 1500 beds in here.”
Does the island want that? “Especially the East Coast was known for individual holidays, not for mass and charter tourism”, says Leonie Kaack with concern. Others say, Zanzibar is big enough for all kind of tourism and 75,000 jobs depend on it. Meanwhile a water truck can be seen every day at five pm delivering drinking water to villagers near Michamwi. Patiently they wait with jerry cans for the truck to arrive. The pools may be full at the booming East Coast, but only half of the local population has yet access to piped fresh water.