Zanzibar scores big cultural tourism points

Something about Zanzibar keeps bringing me back even after ridiculous policies like an immigration demand for yellow fever cards from East Africa citizens. That and a mandatory $50 departure tax have had me swear not to return in the past. (I see vaccination cards as nothing but veiled xenophobia and that obnoxious airport tax would still not make sense even if the Zanzibar airport were touched up to make it look less like a dignified bus park). And the allure that makes me return has little to do with the swimming-pool-green ocean water, the seafood (everyone here sings about its aphrodisiac qualities) or my elusive quest for a mermaid (mbu they only pop out of the ocean on full moon nights). It has more to do with the cultural trappings on offer on this Indian ocean island Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse sang so passionately about in that immortal hit Zanzibar, oh Zanzibar.


Performances at the 2013 Jahazi Literary & Jazz Festival

Clever minds with a cultural bend have devised to trap tourism dollars by getting people to visit during the low season tourism months of February, June and August. Sauti za Busara in February is the island’s signature festival that leaves revellers high and wise on world music. After all it translates as sounds of wisdom in Swahili. I was a regular up until festival organiser in a bit to plug a funding shortfall chose to put an accreditation “tax” on arts journalists. That said, the fact that this festival is timed around Valentines Day makes it a worthy cupid treat if you can’t afford Paris.

Cinephiles can delight in ZIFF, the acronym for the Zanzibar International Film Festival, to take them on an enchanting journey of global cinema spread over a week. Now in its 17th year, ZIFF can brag about self-actualising even before it hit’s its 18th birthday next year. This year has an impressive array of choice picks including Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom with its South African supporting actress star Terry Pheto who plays Mandela’s first wife Evelyn Mase as chief guest on opening night. With the much touted Half of a Yellow Sun, the film adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s political dynamite novel high on the screening line-up, ZIFF can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with say the Toronto International Film Festival as a principal global cinema showcase.

And anyone that feels like Kampala’s annual top jazz event is short-changing patrons via authentic jazz, Zanzibar’s Jahazi Literary and Jazz festival happening on the last weekend of August promises a scintillating weekend of open-air jazz concerts. These are topped up with poetry readings, story telling, literary round table, cultural walks and talks. Add into the mix an all access VIP lounge with the stars and the very best after-parties in town and you’ve got a cultural treat that will get you putting your feet up, kicking back and enjoying island life.

This festival threesome plays out against the backdrop of Zanzibari tourism fixtures like its signature World Heritage sites like Stone Town. It’s a given to get lost literally in its narrow maze-like streets. You may opt to bring your history knowledge to life by sailing a dhow into the sunset and while I won’t recommend skinny-dipping in the Indian Ocean however tempting, wiggling your toes in the sand doesn’t count as a no-no.



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