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Tourism and Hotels on Mafia Island

Although Tanzania during the Nyerere period was equivocal about the benefits of tourism, the government did acquire or build a number of hotels and lodges. One such was the Mafia Island Lodge, erected in the 1960s to replace the old Fishing Club which had attracted big game fishermen from abroad for many years. This Lodge has recently been privatised and there are plans to upgrade it.

More recently, two other hotels have been built in the same area of the island, Utende. The first is

A third hotel is just across the water from Utende on Chole Island.

Harbour View hotel in Kilindoni All of these hotels are owned and managed by non-Tanzanians. There are also a small number of locally-owned hotels, which cater to Tanzanian visitors to the island (such as visiting government servants) and occasional western back-packers who cannot afford the prices of the hotels in Utende. These include the New Lizu in Kilindoni and Kilimani Hotel (formerly Sunset View) at Kilimani on Chole Island (email: kilimani04@hotmail.com).

While tourism may appear an attractive solution to problems of poverty and underdevelopment, it may also carry considerable costs:

    Ground of Kilimani Hotel
  • Loss of land or beach rights for local people
  • Competition for resources such as water
  • Inappropriate behaviour by tourists in terms of dress (or lack of it!) or desire to take photographs of people without their consent

If most of the requirements of tourists are imported from outside the area (or even the country), little or no locally- produced items are purchased, and the only jobs offered are menial ones as gardeners or watchmen, there is little benefit to the local economy.

Coconut tree marked with hotel developer's initials In recent years, there has been much global rhetoric about 'eco-tourism', which is supposed to be both more environmentally-friendly and socially responsible than the conventional form (see for example Tourism Concern's website on http://www.tourismconcern.org.uk). The policy of the Tanzanian government is to develop the southern part of the country through eco-tourism, as has been made clear by Tourism Minister Meghji's 'Statement on eco-tourism' in Swahili Coast magazine (www.swahilicoast.com).

Most of the travel companies who sell tours to Mafia claim that the hotels there are eco-friendly, and that they contribute to the economies of local communities, indeed, some of the hotels themselves advertise primarily to a niche market of socially-conscious tourists on such sites as http://www.responsibletravel.com. There are varying degrees to which the hotels are involved in local communities, but one hotel, Chole Mjini Lodge, sees part of its raison d'etre as being to support the local economy and development projects. See for example
www.the-tribes-foundation.org/default.asp?MIS=8
www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g317083-d581482-r18334625-Chole_Mjini_Lodge-Mafia_Island.html
www.expertafrica.com/lodge/Chole_Mjini_Lodge.htm

However there is also a tendency on the part of some tour operators to see Mafia in particular ways: the island is described as 'exotic', 'unspoiled', 'a real (or sometimes 'unknown') paradise'. It appears to exist outside of time: 'thirty years' or 'a hundred years' behind Zanzibar, or else 'timeless' and 'sleepy' with 'traditional ways of life barely touched by the outside world'. While the main focus is on beaches and marine activities such as scuba diving, the inhabitants don't get much of a mention and when they do are variously described as 'traditional' (whatever that means), 'happy', 'tolerant', and 'friendly'. One website even uses the 1896 account of Mafia by a German geographer to describe life on the island today, implying that nothing has changed since then.

Descriptions such as these are often very far from reality. Mafia is not divorced from historical processes and indeed has been part of them for at least a thousand years. Nor are the people who live there immune to outside forces, indeed they are increasingly subject to global processes, as other pages on this website and many of the references below make clear. Paradoxically, the tour operators themselves recognise this in one context for recently, care has been taken to ensure that tourists who hear that Mafia is close to Zanzibar (where there have been occasional disturbances) don't get the wrong impression. Thus for instance, they are told that, although Muslims, ‘political instability in Zanzibar does not have any impact here.

A number of new lodges have recently been established on Mafia – see
Whale Shark Lodge Kilindoni
Ras Mbisi Lodge
Butiama Beach hotel

References and further reading on the impact of tourism:

  • Burns, Peter, 1999. An Introduction to Tourism and Anthropology. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Crick, Malcolm. 1989. 'Representations of International Tourism in the Social Sciences: sun, sex, sights, savings and servility' Annual Review of Anthropology, 18:307-44.

  • Lea, John, 1988. Tourism and Development in the Third World. London and New York: Routledge.

  • MacCannell, Dean, 1992. Empty Meeting Grounds; The Tourist Papers London: Routledge

  • Selwyn, Tom, 1994. 'The Anthropology of Tourism: reflections on the state of the art' in A.S. Seaton et al. Tourism: the State of the Art. London: Wiley.