The island of Zanzibar captures the imagination of many. This beautiful destination off the coast of Tanzania boasts pristine beaches, centuries of history, and the unique Swahili culture that is a blend of African, Middle Eastern, and Portuguese.
Hundreds of thousands of people visit Zanzibar each year, and the number is steadily growing. Visitors get to take in the beautiful historic architecture of Stone Town, pristine beaches such as Kendwa Beach, and so much more.
For decades, Zanzibar has captured the imagination of globetrotters and armchair travelers alike. However, before you start planning your visit, you should make sure that the reality on the ground matches the image of paradise conjured up by all those beach photos.
A primary concern for potential visitors to Zanzibar is if the island is safe or not. But don’t worry — our travel experts made this guide to help you get an idea for potential concerns, including crime, before you book your tickets.
Is Zanzibar Safe to Visit?
Zanzibar is mostly safe to visit, and with the right precautions, you shouldn’t be in any danger. However, keep an eye on your valuables as petty theft is common in the country, especially around tourist attractions.
Violent crime is rare, but it does occur. To get an idea of safe travels to Zanzibar, it’s helpful to look at the travel advisories in place for the whole country of Tanzania.
For example, the United States State Department has Tanzania under a Level Two travel advisory due to crime, terrorism, and violence against minorities, especially against LGBT people.
These are problems that Zanzibar experiences as well, but not at a scale where you should cancel all travel plans immediately. Before heading to Zanzibar, it’s a good idea to know a little about the political situation and its relationship with the country of Tanzania.
Zanzibar joined Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964, but retained its autonomy, even having its own president and cabinet.
There is an independence movement on the island as well as regular civil unrest, often directed against the ruling party. Election violence is common. You might encounter a demonstration when you are in Zanzibar, especially if you are traveling during an election year.
Make sure that you get out of the way and don’t join the demonstration. They do sometimes turn violent, and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of the law either. Besides civil unrest, crime is also a concern for visitors to Zanzibar.
Common crimes include:
- Bag snatching
- Tourist scams
- Sexual harassment
- Sexual assault
- Armed robbery
Crime rates are slightly elevated in Zanzibar, and you should probably take precautions to protect your safety. While crime is not so widespread that you should cancel plans altogether, it is good to have some situational awareness as you move around Zanzibar.
In terms of natural disasters, you don’t have much to worry about in Zanzibar.
However, you shouldn’t travel to the island during cyclone season, which lasts from December to April. Cyclones primarily hit the southern regions of the Zanzibar archipelago and can cause high winds, storm surges, and flooding.
Crime in Zanzibar
Crime is the primary concern for most potential visitors to Zanzibar, and with good reason. Statistics and anecdotal evidence agree that the region does have an elevated crime rate.
According to Numbeo, Zanzibar has a moderate overall level of crime. However, it has a high rate of break-ins, vehicle break-ins, and theft. Many respondents also report feeling that crime has increased in the past three years.
One problem could be the corruption and bribery — Zanzibar scores a 79.69 out of 100 on the Numbeo crime index for this category. Zanzibar has a moderate homicide rate.
The entire country of Tanzania has a reasonable homicide rate of 6.48 incidents per 100,000 people, which is about the global average. However, it struggles with other forms of violent crime, such as armed robbery.
Most crimes in Zanzibar involve theft of some sort, from petty theft to armed robbery. Often, criminals will target foreigners. They perceive foreigners to be less wealthy than locals (usually rightly so) and know that foreigners may not have the street smarts they need to avoid a robbery.
Violent crimes that occur involving foreigners often involve an escalation from robbery. It’s also important to mention that gender-based violence is common in Zanzibar.
According to UNICEF, 10% of women in Zanzibar experience sexual violence. While this statistic applies to local Zanzibari women, the same attitudes that allow so much sexual violence to occur on Zanzibar will affect foreigners as well.
Many female travelers report feeling uncomfortable in Zanzibar as street harassment is very common, usually in the form of catcalling.
There have been cases of escalating forms of violence, including sexual assault, directed against foreign women. Be careful when walking around Zanzibar and try not to walk alone at night.
Make sure that you are not being followed back to your accommodation. If you are alone, don’t broadcast the fact that you are traveling alone as you never know who is looking to take advantage of you.
The most common crime in Zanzibar, and the one you will most likely encounter as a tourist, is petty theft. Pickpockets, bag snatchers, and scammers of all types operate in Zanzibar.
They often target tourists because they know that visitors are distracted by the beauty of their surroundings and are likely to have valuable cash, phones, and passports in their bags.
A little attention can go a long way to preventing theft in Zanzibar. Make sure that you are aware of your surroundings at all times and not wandering around with your phone in your hand or your bag accidentally unzipped.
Be mindful about the impression that you are giving. Walk with purpose even as you take in the scenery around you. Don’t give off an impression of wealth; try to keep your valuables out of sight.
Make sure that you have a close grip on your valuables at all times. Never leave your bag hanging off of the back of a restaurant chair or let it be unzipped. Keep valuables in a front pocket or secure inner pocket of your bag.
Practice active protection of your valuables by keeping your bag close to your body at all times. Of course, the best defense against theft is to make sure that thieves don’t have access to your valuables.
Carry a copy of your ID instead of the official document. Leave most of your cash in your hotel room locked in a room safe. When you go swimming, never leave your belongings unattended.
Go with a group so someone is always on duty to watch everyone’s things, or leave your phone and wallet locked up in your hotel while you go swimming. Popular tourist destinations around Zanzibar are also hot spots for pickpocketing.
The UK government warns its citizens that visit Zanzibar to be careful around Stone Town, the popular historic core of Zanzibar, but also on local beaches. Make sure that you stick to a well-trafficked area of the beach.
This is not the place where you want to wander off alone in search of the perfect isolated stretch of shore as thieves and robbers often target people walking alone on the beach.
Sometimes theft escalates into armed robbery in Zanzibar. This form of violent crime sometimes affects tourists as criminals see visitors as easy targets. Robbers will use machetes most commonly but also firearms to threaten victims.
There have been many reports of armed robbers targeting people walking along beaches as well as directly attacking hotels and resorts. They will also follow tourist activities such as tour buses and dive boats to find potential victims.
Keep in mind that you are a potential target as you walk around Zanzibar. That shouldn’t scare you, but it should make you more aware about how you move around the area.
You should be particularly careful at night, as that is when most robberies occur. Make sure that you are moving with a group if you leave your hotel or resort.
If you have to head back to your accommodation, take a taxi instead of walking back as walking exposes you to potential danger. If you are the victim of a robbery, don’t resist.
Armed robbers probably have more experience robbing people than you do getting away from them, so there is a strong possibility that things could go wrong if you put up too much of a fight.
Focus on getting away safely, even if that means handing over your valuables. Sometimes armed robberies escalate to assault, including sexual assault, so you don’t want to make the interaction last any longer than it should.
Avoiding Bad Areas
Knowing where to go in Zanzibar can go a long way to helping you stay safe. Avoid isolated beaches, both during the day and at night. Muggers and robbers operate at all times of day.
They lie in wait, hidden on the beach, waiting for a tourist to pass by alone. Then, they snatch your possessions and there is not much that you can do about it.
Obviously, the danger is even greater after dark, when the robber might resort to more violent methods when they are sure nobody can see them. Stone Town is Zanzibar’s old town and a popular tourist destination thanks to its historic buildings and diverse street culture.
However, it is also a prime spot for theft. Many travel advisories, including the official one from the Canadian government, warn tourists to keep a close eye on their valuables when they are in Stone Town.
Zanzibar Town also has higher rates of theft and pickpocketing. The beaches around Zanzibar Town are common targets for robbers and muggers.
Things to Consider
Here are some additional travel tips for Zanzibar:
- Zanzibar is a conservative Muslim community (for the most part). Dress modestly as there are fines for both men and women who violate those regulations — keep your bathing suit for the beach only. You also can’t buy alcohol in most of Zanzibar, so make sure that you are only consuming alcohol in safe areas such as resorts.
- All of Tanzania has strict anti-LGBT laws, and that includes Zanzibar. Many LGBT travelers don’t feel comfortable here and there have been situations where LGBT travelers were targeted and even deported for their sexuality.
- Zanzibar is an archipelago, and the only way to get between some of the islands is by ferry. Be cautious as ferries between the main island of Zanzibar and the smaller islands are often overcrowded and unreliable. If you can, book a private transfer.
- You might encounter scams during your travels, from gate agents at the airport asking for a bribe to scalpers reselling ferry tickets. Make sure that you are giving your money to reputable people.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions that people wanted to know before traveling to Zanzibar:
What are the risks in Zanzibar?
There are a few risks when traveling to Zanzibar. The most famous one is probably crime, usually theft. There are also the same risks you would associate with any tropical destination, such as flooding during rainy seasons, insect-borne diseases, and stomach issues.
Is Zanzibar safe from pirates?
East Africa has an ongoing problem with pirates that does affect Zanzibar. However, any pirate attacks that come as far south as Zanzibar usually happen far off the shore, so you will probably be safe unless you are going on an extensive sailing trip.
Is Zanzibar safe for female tourists?
Zanzibar is mostly safe for female tourists, especially those with some traveling experience. However, women have to take precautions such as not walking alone at night and choosing hotels with strong security. Sexual harassment is common.
Can you drink alcohol in Zanzibar?
Alcohol sales in Zanzibar are restricted. Some bars, stores, and hotels around Stone Town do sell alcohol, as do most resorts that cater to foreigners. Be careful that you are not intoxicated in public as that is seen as disrespectful.
Do I need anti-malaria drugs for Zanzibar?
Like most tropical destinations, Zanzibar has a problem with malaria. The CDC recommends taking anti-malaria tablets when you travel there as an extra precaution.
So, Should You Travel to Zanzibar?
As long as you are prepared for the high rate of theft, Zanzibar is mostly safe to visit. Make sure that you are not flashing valuables or leaving your belongings unattended and you’re most of the way towards ensuring a safe Zanzibar vacation. Happy travels!