People new to exotic travel often worry about tropical diseases, but it is accidents that are most likely to carry you off. Road accidents are very common in many parts of Zanzibar so be aware and do what you can to reduce risks: try to travel during daylight hours, always wear a seatbelt and refuse to be driven by anyone who has been drinking. Listen to local advice about any areas where crime is an issue.
When travelling around Zanzibar or East Africa, the different climatic and social conditions mean visitors are exposed to diseases not normally encountered at home. Although you will likely have received all the vaccinations recommended, this does not mean you will be free of all illness during your travels: certain precautions still have to be taken. You should read a good book on travel medicine and be aware of the causes, symptoms and treatments of the more serious diseases. But don’t let this put you off – with a little care and attention most of these illnesses can be avoided.
Diseases and vaccinations
Make sure all your immunisations are up to date. Officially, proof of vaccination against yellow fever is only needed for entry into Zanzibar if you are coming from another yellow fever endemic area, but the Zanzibari authorities have been known to request proof of vaccination for visitors coming from Tanzania – which effectively incorporates most visitors.
It’s also reckless to travel in the tropics without being up to date on tetanus, polio and diphtheria (now given as an all-in-one vaccine, Revaxis) and hepatitis A. Immunisation against typhoid, hepatitis B and rabies may also be recommended.
The biggest health threat is malaria. This potentially fatal mosquito-borne disease has largely been eradicated from Zanzibar and Pemba in recent years, thanks to the widespread use of insecticide-treated nets and indoor spraying, and the prevalence stood at an all-time low of less than 1%. Despite this, the amount of human traffic between the mainland and the islands means that it has not been eliminated entirely, and visitors should take all precautions against it.
Though advised for everyone, a pre-exposure rabies vaccination, involving three doses taken over a minimum of 21 days, is particularly important if you intend to have contact with animals, or are likely to be 24 hours away from medical help.
As in most countries, crime on these islands is gradually on the increase. Similarly, problems tend to occur with greater frequency in the cities and tourist heartlands than in the rural areas. Perhaps inevitably, the juxtaposition of relatively wealthy tourists and a high density of relatively poor local people causes envy and leads to the occasional crime.
Zanzibar Town is notorious for opportunist pickpockets, and occasionally tourists do have bags and cameras snatched while walking around the narrow streets of Stone Town. There have also been robberies on some of the beaches around Zanzibar Town; it is better not to go there alone, especially at night. The authors have yet to hear of any crime problems on Mafia Island – but this is a small, rural island with a low population density.
You can reduce the chances of having anything stolen by not displaying your wealth. Don’t bring valuable jewellery to these islands; leave it at home. Keep your valuables secure, out of sight and preferably back in the safe at your hotel. Keep most of your money there too, and do not peel off notes from a huge wad for every small purchase. Wandering around the town with an expensive camera casually slung over your shoulder or a state-of-the-art iPhone is insensitive and simply asking for trouble. A simple, dull-looking bag is much safer than something smart or fashionable.
Islamic terrorist groups are present in East Africa, and to a varying degree, pose a threat across the entire region. In Zanzibar specifically, there were two explosions in Zanzibar Town in 2013. There was also a bomb attack near a mosque in Stone Town in June 2014, which killed one person and injured several others. No such incident has occurred since.
With the rise of global terrorism, some travellers have looked nervously towards East Africa, but the truth is that the large Islamic communities on the islands are generally very peaceful, though they probably have their extremist elements, very much like the extremists who live in communities in the UK, Europe and the USA. So whilst Zanzibar has many factors that may cause initial concern, at the time of writing the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office do not cite the risk from terrorism as higher than in Western Europe or the USA.