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Tourism is a double-edged sword for island paradise Zanzibar

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Tourism in Zanzibar is welcomed with open arms.

A small, tropical island off the East Coast of Africa, Zanzibar is a haven for tourists all over the world. Its broad stretches of white sand beaches, quaint yet historically rich capital Stone Town and bustling small-town charm has seen tourist numbers double from 150,000 to 376,000 in just 10 years.

And there’s no surprise for such a stark increase in its popularity. It’s tiny, zig-zagging streets are filled with romance and nostalgia; its resort-lined beaches are secret getaways for tired businessmen and joyous newlyweds; and its markets are chock full of spicy surprises and local delicacies.

And as much as tourists love visiting the island, the locals love hosting them. It’s no secret that tourism is a huge driving force in the Zanzibari economy; its largest economic sector is not only essential for maintaining socio-economic stability, but also as a tool to boost employment, particularly in the private sector.

Zanzibar’s government over the years have been slowly trying to enhance the positive effects of tourism in different economic sectors. Youth employment, poverty reduction, transport, and technology are some of the major industries that officials believe tourism should contribute towards.

However, while it all seems rather idyllic on the surface, the reality is much more complex.

Undeniably tourism brings in a welcome economic boost, but the huge increase in tourist numbers has begun to put a strain on the island’s resources, facilities, and its natural surrounding environment. Areas particularly at risk are clean water supplies, waste management and disposal, and maintaining the cleanliness of Zanzibari beaches.

Tourists, in general, are generating more solid waste, and use far more freshwater water supplies (bottled water and streams from specific tanks with filtration systems) than the locals in Stone Town’s surrounding villages.

The island’s sewage systems are being clogged with over 2,200 cubic metres of untreated liquid waste and sewage every single day. The waste, from smaller hotels and restaurants, is sent directly into the ocean and its surrounding mangrove forests, according to Mohammed Sheikh, Director of Life Science at Tanzania Commission of Science and Technology.

Small plastic shampoo and shower gel bottles, individual size breakfast condiments, plastic lunchboxes, and cutlery are all items which have been found piling up in the ocean’s waste.

Mr. Sheikh also noted that the lunchboxes and single-use plastic products are largely used by diving and adventure trip organisers who encourage their visitors to bring sun cream and snacks with them on long reef trips or island-hopping journeys.

And as you'd expect, it’s all piling up. The increase in ocean waste is not only having an effect on specific swimming spots but can also be attributed to the increasing deterioration of the island’s coral reefs, mangrove and seagrass forests.

Mr. Sheikh, along with many other government officials and local leaders, is extremely worried about the island’s future as a tourist hotspot and bucket list destination. Together, they have been working hard to prevent the negative effects of tourism (back in 2012 the administration flat-out banned the use of plastic bags) with sustainable tourism a huge priority in its 2020 Vision.

But I fear the small island is going to have to work much harder and faster to avoid drowning in the waves of destruction left behind by its beloved visitors.

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