Survival Tips for Choosing a Tour Guide in Zanzibar

Waiting for tourists on the beach
Waiting for tourists on the beach | © Mathias Apitz (München) / Flickr
Gill Lange

Exploring the tantalising treats of Zanzibar can be a bit confusing at times, and travellers following their own itinerary can greatly benefit from the assistance of a well-informed, qualified tour guide. The problem in Zanzibar is that ‘guides’ are a dime a dozen, and selecting the right one can sometimes become a headache. So before setting off for the Spice Island, read on for some tips on making sure that the guide you choose is legitimate and worth the money you will be forking out.

Go with a pro

There are plenty of well-qualified tour guides in Zanzibar who know their turtles from their tortoises and come with a fountain of interesting facts and funny stories. Look for those that have a professional licence or tour-guiding certificate to make sure you are getting the real deal. This will ensure you get the best possible experience of Zanzibar and not be rushed through the sights.

Tour guide and clients on a spice tour

Say what?

Choose a guide who has a good grasp of the English language. This may sound like a no-brainer, but truth be told, failure to communicate happens more often than than you might think. English is widely spoken in Tanzania, along with Swahili, but don’t automatically assume that your guide will have excellent English skills. Trying to communicate with someone who knows only a smattering of English will lead to frustration and confusion, with one of the biggest risks being a misunderstanding regarding the tour guide’s fees. This is one way in which a ‘bargain’ guide could end up costing you an arm and a leg. Legitimate tour guides in Zanzibar can all speak English well, and in some instances speak four or five languages.

Clear communication is essential

Don’t get hooked by a shark

Being an island, it stands to reason that many of the things to enjoy in Zanzibar revolve around the ocean. Dolphin tours are particularly popular, with visitors heading off into the great wide blue in search of these friendly and intelligent mammals. Extra caution should be practised here, though, as there are plenty of opportunistic sharks waiting to grab your money and chase down a poor dolphin. In worst-case scenarios, a few boats operate together to hem the dolphins in, giving their passengers a quick glimpse of some frantic creatures trying to swim away. Professional tour guides will never cause undue stress to marine life. Ask questions and choose a reputable guide.

Dolphin tour in Zanzibar

Transportation woes

Most visitors touch down in Dar es Salaam in a Boeing and, if following their own itinerary, will then need to arrange transport to get around. In Zanzibar, there are no hard and fast rules regarding taxi fares. If travellers don’t want to get fleeced, they should always establish the cost before considering the ride.

Informal taxis in Zanzibar

Be wary of the ‘beach boys’

There are many self-employed Zanzibar locals who run respectable businesses and offer tourists a whole range of sea and beach activities. However, there are also a few so-called ‘beach boys’ who are, generally speaking, unemployed opportunists. Visitors to the island should give them a wide berth, as they are rarely knowledgeable on any topic, and trawl the beach waiting to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists.

Where to shop

The island of Zanzibar, and Stone Town in particular, is abuzz with interesting shopping opportunities, ranging from street-side markets to art galleries and boutiques. On the streets, haggling is par for the course. Visitors are advised to start with a low price and work up, rather than trying to bargain down. Guides will happily lead you to many shopping locations, but bear in mind that their choice of destinations may be strongly influenced by retailers who offer the guides commission in exchange for bringing them customers.

Antique shopping in Stone Town

Do your homework

Licensed operators are the best way to go, but sometimes they can be the more expensive option. If your holiday budget can’t cover this expense, then do some research before leaving home. There are many excellent, smaller tour operators who provide fabulous personalised experiences that won’t put a hole in your pocket. These are usually well-informed locals trying to make a better living. Passionate about what they do, these guides invest effort and time into showing their guests the real deal.

Informal guides waiting for clients

Never fork out a deposit

Giving an informal guide a deposit for future services is as good as kissing your money goodbye, and you will probably never hear from your ‘guide’ again. A large portion of the Zanzibar population lives below the breadline, and given the chance to grab and run, will do so. When selecting a guide, first discuss your requirements and then agree on a firm, non-negotiable price. Pay your guide the full amount you have agreed on, once the deal has been fulfilled.

Locals fishing for a living

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