Sustainibility deluxe

Between The Sunbed and the deep blue sea 

On the East Coast of Africa, the sea and its surroundings set the stage for negotiations about how to balance tourism, the local economy and marine conservation. Heike Blümner visited four luxury destinations in Mozambique and Tanzania, who haven taken on this task. They come with a price tag, but also with remarkable results.

Conditions are not ideal for snorkelling dilettantes like myself. But at this point that’s beyond my concern. Wind is blowing stiffly over Benguerra, an island in the Bazaruto Archipelago, off the southern coast of Mozambique, where the power of the open Indian Ocean reigns along it’s eastern „wild side“. On the boat, the stomach signals that it prefers solid ground; in the water, I feel fragile and somehow insignificant. Nevertheless, I’d rather not be anywhere else. Below lies a three-kilometre-long reef, overgrown with about 400 species of coral, around which a colourful society of countless large and small sea creatures cavort – including hundreds of parrot fish. Turtles live here, as do reef sharks and humpback dolphins.

Ekaterina Kalashnikova dives down. The Russian marine biologist, who works for the ocean observatory „Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies“ (BCSS), pushes back up with a snort and beams as though she has found a treasure. Which in a way she has: „This is how it should be“, she exclaims. „The benchmark.“ Her joy is so infectious, the next wave lands –dilettante-style – in my laughing mouth.

Benchmark: The marine wildlife around the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique

Trip to the wild side: The team of BCSS looks after the coral reefs on the open western side of the islands

I’m on my way up north, deep into the tropics. Besides Benguerra, there are three more islands which I will visit: Thanda, Mnemba and Pemba, all in Tanzania. These remote places are home to fabulous resorts that don’t run along with the classic notions of luxury – even though, as a guest there, there is no lack of amenities. Locals and foreigners work on a vision of tourism that protects and strengthen flora, fauna and communities. Call it sustainable or blue tourism, describe it as „low volume, high impact“. And yet these terms fall short. For behind them stand individual approaches or even philosophies of life, as well as a high degree of financial and personal commitment. They offer long-term perspectives for the local population and may even serve as a model outside of tourism.

Africa is in a transitional phase: international travel and hotel companies have not yet entered the market on a large scale. Thus, a mixture of private initiative, family businesses, non governmental organisations and gold-digging rules. On Africa’s East Coast, these approaches sometimes collide, in places like Zanzibar in a very confined space. The sea and it’s surroundings then become the platform for negotiations on who should be allowed to profit from whom.

Trip up north, into the tropics: 1. Kisawa Sanctuary, Mozambique, 2. Thanda Island, 3. Mnemba Island, 4. The Manta Resort on Pemba Island, Tanzania

In Mozambique, on Benguerra Island, the lesser part of this tension can be felt. Only few travellers land here. But for those who do the landscape leaves a lasting impression: strong tides and the high white dunes are vaguely reminiscent of the European North Sea, but the luminous waters in a palette of light blue tones, the climate, the vegetation and the deserted beaches place an unmistakable subtropical filter over this association.

Since 1971, the entire Bazaruto Archipelago is a protected marine park, which also means that commercial fishing is forbidden. Only the inhabitants of the islands are allowed to pull out whatever the waters offer in their traditional boats, called dhows. But even in this photographic wallpaper scenario not all is pretty: „The sea has no borders,“ says marine biologist Kalashnikova, „what happens outside of here also affects us.“ Add to this the poverty of the island’s population. Until the early 1990s, Mozambique was in a state of civil war and was considered the poorest country in the world. Today, there is a modest economic upswing, but lack of education, malnutrition and medical care, as well as the consequential issues of underdeveloped countries, are more the norm than the exception, even on Benguerra.

Visions of blue: Benguerra Island from above

But things are on the move here: „A lot is changing for the better,“ says Querino Huo, known as „Q“, as we bump around the island in his pickup truck. The school, the police station, the community centre, the hospital, the wells – they all came into being thanks to tourism. Two resorts have existed on Benguerra for some time. They offer jobs for the population and provided better infrastructure. In 2017, the ocean observatory BCCS started its work and in 2021 the associated Kisawa Sanctuary opened. With that another 170 jobs were added to a population of 3000 and that’s where Q as „Community Manager“ comes in: As man for everything and link to the villagers.

Building this kind of resort would be a challenging project even in the developed parts of the world. Here it seems as if it has inexplicably fallen from the sky. In fact, most of the building elements and the furniture came no less miraculously by sea – on the traditional dhows. Approaching Kisawa from water, the eleven „residences“ with 17 villas are not visible at first. Their shape and roofs of Madjeka grass blend in with the dune landscape. The foundations of the houses are cement-free, mortar was mixed from sand and seawater, and all the wickerwork and roofing, as well as parts of the wooden furniture, were made by local craftsmen.

It took six years from planning to opening the place, which seems quick given the level of sophistication: each villa covers 150 square metres with high, open spaces and furnishings in shades of green, sand and brown made from natural materials. A pool and an open kitchen are part of each house, as is a personal „butler“, responsible for the well-being of each resident. Several restaurants, a vegetable garden and a spa area are loosely scattered over the huge property. A maximum of 40 guests can stay here. They are looked after by 180 members of staff, the vast majority of whom are from the island.

Kisawa is outstandingly luxurious, but not in a brash way.

This place knows the codes of European tastefulness and dresses them in a regional look along the lines of „tropical modernism“, which flourished in tropical countries in the second half of the 20th century. The Mozambican version of it was developed Nina Flohr, a Swiss heiress and entrepreneur. Together with the US architects of „Plus Design“, she and her design office „NJF“ are responsible for appearances. The 36-year-old also founded the marine research station BCSS and the associated foundation. What started as a small project is now a serious scientific base: „There was only one boat in the beginning,“ marine biologist Kalashnikova remembers, „nothing more“.

Tropical Modernism meets highest European standards: Kisawa Sanctuary was developed and designed by Swiss entrepreneur Nina Flohr

Today, BCSS consists of a settlement of wooden houses with offices, a laboratory, a communal kitchen, guest rooms, a plunge pool, a waste separation plant, a composting plant and a permaculture training garden. 25 people work here, most of them from the surrounding communities. National and international student groups and scientists visit BCSS for training and research. The entire facility runs on solar power and in a project unique in the world, the ocean floor around the archipelago is being mapped, marine wildlife recorded, and a rubbish collection and categorisation programme for the beaches is in place. „We do hardcore research here,“ says Ian Hudson, British marine biologist and senior board member. The results of this work are made freely available to NGOs, companies and universities on request: „I have huge optimism,“ says Hudson, „because I believe that we help nature so that it helps us. The ocean works like an air conditioner, it is a solution to our problems. But in order to achieve that, you have to recognise that climate change is happening right now, not tomorrow,“ he says.

One could argue, that all successful cooperation between luxury tourism and marine conservation is based on a point of friction: that the travellers who come here also pay for the privilege of being able to forget the reality of advancing destruction of the marine environment in view of the largely intact nature. At the same time, their presence and financial contribution makes it possible to find solutions to this reality.

Serious Science: The Bazaruto Center of Scientific Studies was also found by Nina Flohr and is linked to Kisawa

Almost 2000 kilometres further north, off the coast of Mafia Island in Tanzania, the external conditions are similarly beguiling. From the boat I see a rippling carpet of shimmering blue ocean plus a hint of coastline. Nothing else. There are four of us on our way in the early hours of the morning: skipper Robbie, his helper Amini and Dutch marine biologist Rianne Laan. They all work on Thanda Island, a tiny fleck of land nearby that you can easily walk around in 15 minutes.

The 30-year-old Laan has been living there for five years. It’s her first job fresh out of university and already it has become a legacy project of sorts. She looks after the private marine reserve around the island, which covers just under seven square kilometres. Thanda Island is located in the Shungimibili Island Reserve, which exists since 2007. It borders on the Mafia Island reserve, which has been in place since 1995. But it is only since Thanda opened as a luxury destination in 2016, that a boat station for the park rangers was established and in consequence marine conservation could be actively pursued.

On this morning we are heading towards Mafia in search of an extreme rarity: whale sharks. Amini, who grew up here, stands at the helm of the boat, moving his arms like a conductor, while the skipper follows his movements. And suddenly, as if out of nowhere, there they are: dozens of the biggest fish in the world. Contrary to what their name suggests, they are peaceful, and the calmer you are, the closer you can get to them. Whale sharks grow up to 18 metres long and are also called „the gentle giants“. But gentleness aside: throwing yourself into this turmoil with a snorkel requires pushing away flight instincts towards huge fish that swim towards you with their mouths wide open. In return the feeling of playing a plodding supporting role in a water ballet of grey-spotted heavyweights is exhilarating.

Gentle Giants: Whalesharks off Mafia Island

Dutch marinebiologist Rianne Laan looks after the sea surrounding Thanda Island

Thanda belongs to Swedish philantropist and investor couple Christin and Dan Olofsson and is the sister resort of Thanda Safari in South Africa. Thanda Island is also part of The Leading Hotels of the World. Whereas hotel is probably a somewhat too folksy interpretation of the circumstances. On the island stands a light-grey painted wooden villa, whose design is more reminiscent of the Hamptons than the tropics, as well as two more traditionally inspired wooden huts, a tennis court surrounded by tropical vegetation, and a gym. A total of 18 guests can stay here. Thanda runs on 80 percent solar power, waste water is purified and used to water the plants, service water comes from the sea and is desalinated. There is a vegetable garden and rubbish is strictly separated and recycled.

Those who check in here get to experience the dream version of a holiday on a deserted tropical island, when you let your imagination run embarrassingly overboard. Clear waters and white beaches are just the beginning. A young South African chef prepares top cuisine to your taste and the young staff knows how to charm you into glasses of Sauvignon Blanc from lunchtime onwards. They also carry your yoga mat, offer open-air massages and beauty treatments, host barbecues and even bake a serious pizza in an oven set up on one of the terraces. For the environmental crash course Rianne Laan, the marine biologist, introduces you to the area and her work.

„This kind of tourism is important. There are otherwise only coconuts and fish here.“ And less and less of the latter, she adds. That’s why she has set two focal points in her work: she grows corals and plants them on damaged reefs and she involves the inhabitants of the surrounding islands in her work. This requires trust:

„I am a young, white woman who comes from outside. Why should they listen to me when I tell you about conservation?“

Phantasie running wild: Thanda is a private island luxury resort

She proceeded cautiously. Her underwater coral farm off Thanda looks like a giant waiting game. On large tables, on ropes 16 by 6 metres long and on constructions that resemble tree skeletons, she plants about four centimetres long pieces of coral fragments by hand. 9000 pieces at full capacity. After about half a year, the corals are large enough so that each piece can be attached with cement glue to the reef, where they then grow and provide food and shelter for fish. Laan estimates that in five years one hectar of reef will be revitalised in this manner. Already plenty of underwater life off Thanda has returned. For this received help from her local assistants. They are also helping to spread the message

One that’s sinking in as the inhabitants of the neighbouring islands experience every day that their catch is getting smaller: „They understand that the sea is overfished – by them, too.“ That is why Laan founded the NGO „The Ropes of Hope“ last year, alluding to the ropes she plants corals on. The start-up funding came from the hotel business. Beginning this year, the organisation is offering training programmes in diving and coral cultivation to four young people from the surrounding islands. Together they will plant more corals with the marine biologist. In return she hopes, that the actively protected area will expand to other islands and that gentle luxury tourism will bring more reliable money into the communities than depleting fisheries.

It is her small contribution in the vast ocean that demands inner conviction. And looking ahead is not as much fun as looking down: „Sometimes when I look out at the ocean at night, I see all these lights and at first I think it’s the mainland coast. In fact, it’s the fishermen of Zanzibar who go fishing with their horrible ring nets,“ she says. Ring nets tear out everything in the sea. This is another reason why it is so important to work with the people, she says: „I might leave here one day, but the people will always live here. It has to come out of the community, otherwise all these actions are not sustainable.“

Growing project: Dianne Laan and her local team plant corals on constructions and sculptures

Further north, Zanzibar carries a euphonious name – and a few misconceptions along with it: Zanzibar is an archipelago, not an island, and the destination popular with tourists is actually called Unguja. Half a million people visit it every year, and numbers are rising. Besides the famous beaches, a construction boom is also underway. And that has not left the sea unscathed.

Mnemba Island is an islet one and a half kilometres in circumference off the Northwest Coast of Unguja. The South African company andBeyond has been running a private resort there for 26 years, which falls into the time before mass tourism. Set apart from Unguja, Mnemba remains a bastion from the advancing troops of holidaymakers and property developers. But they are circeling in.

All is quiet: Mnemba island is a small luxury resort run by andBeyond

AndBeyond are pioneers of sustainable tourism in Africa and also active in South America and Asia. They are not only a provider of exclusive resorts, lodges and experiences such as safaris or expeditions, but also operate at the interface of tourism, development aid and nature conservation. Their „Africa Foundation“ is an NGO and independent partner organisation, there are further cooperations with other well-known NGOs such as the WWF or Oceans Without Boarders. AndBeyond’s impact report is laced with figures and projects such as lion and elephant breeding, rhino conservation, schools, clinics, orphanages, support for small private businesses such as bakeries, apprenticeship programmes, as well as permaculture and reforestation projects.

Jonathan Braack has been working with the andBeyond from the early days. He started as a safari guide and park ranger and is now the company’s Sustainabilty Manager. The native South African visits Mnemba regularly. No tree here escapes his attention. In the evenings, after a whisky or two straight up, he says with a wry grin: „If I can solve Mnemba’s problems, I can solve the world’s problems.” Luckily, he says, the „Revolutionary Government“ of Zanzibar has been pulling on the same string: „They take conservation issues seriously.“ The staff on the island are also committed to the greater picture. They have formed a „Conservation Committee“. Makame Mussa, the boat captain of Mnemba, is their spokesperson and explains what is close to their hearts: „Mostly we talk about the environment and nature. That’s the big issue here.“

Lover of and fighter for nature: Jonathan Braack is Sustainability Manager at Andbeyond

On the surface, not many problems seem to exist on Mnemba: Being here feels, above all, relaxing and close to nature: There are twelve coconut leaf-covered wooden villas, set raptly apart from each other in a tropical forest. They are equipped with furniture from local and natural materials with a huge bed as a centrepiece, which disappears under a mosquito net in the evening. There are no glass windows, but heavy raffia blinds that can be lowered or not. Instead of air conditioning, a natural breeze blows and an atonal symphony of chirping, twittering and cawing lulls you to sleep. In the morning, the singing staff serves you tea and homemade biscuits on the veranda. It’s a hospitality that feels genuine.

But other than that there is actually a lot going on here: an indigenous reforestation programme, the breeding of the duiker antelope, which is acutely threatened with extinction, but jumps through the undergrowth here. Turtles are using the island as one of the largest protected breeding grounds along the Indian Ocean. For 20 years, the same member of staff has been looking after them, marking the nesting sites and making sure the hatchlings get safely into the sea.

Hospitality that feels real: Villas and interiors on Mnemba are made from local materials only

Handle with care: Uledi has been looking after the turtle nests for 20 years

Off to sea: After the turtles hatch they are guided towards the ocean

From nine o’clock in the morning, however, the scenario off the island changes abruptly until around noon. At first there are only a few small wooden boats. Then gradually more and even larger boats move in like a swarm of mosquitoes. The park rangers of Mnemba count up to 120 of them daily. It’s their job to keep an eye on the crowd. All these boats are packed with tourists who want to visit the „house reef“, a 300-metre-long coral reef that is affected by this rush: People stand on it for photos, feed the fish from the boat, or leave rubbish on the sand atoll after a picnic at low tide. It has almost been loved to death. In 1997, it was still covered with 60 percent healthy corals, today this figure is 5.9 per cent. “People are lured in with pictures that don’t show the reality. It’s trippy stuff,“ Braack says. For this experience they pay between 15 and 30 dollars. The money is distributed among various middlemen, and the boat boys are left with maybe three dollars, he estimates. A lot of money in this area.

This system is in dire need of reform and that’s what Braack has set his energy together with the government. For this all interests must be united: those of nature, but above all an alternative source of income for locals and thus also alternatives for tourists must be found. „We have to develop Zanzibari strategies for Zanzibari problems here,“ he says. „We cannot adopt EU standards.“

He has developed a plan and presented it for years to boards, committees and ministers of the „Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar“. How many times? „I can’t count it exactly anymore,“ he says and laughs. Has he ever lost patience? „No. I scream into my pillow at night.“

Briefly summarised, his proposal is this: andBeyond will build an artificial reef further out to sea, something playful and experimential. That’s where the boats would take the tourists. Meanwhile, the Mnemba Reef is being replanted with corals from the local nursery and given time to recover. This will take about ten years, the Sustainibility Manager estimates. After that, the house reef will be reopened, but under a completely new deal. Quotas would have to be set for the number of visitors and the prices for the snorkelling tour would have to be increased significantly. In the end, so the plan, everyone would benefit: the ecosystem, the boat tour providers, the communities and the island because of the tax revenue – and last but not least the tourists, who would get a real experience for their money. The good news is: the contract with the government has just been signed. And this has the potential to resonate beyond Mnemba.

Before the rush: Mnemba Island in the morning

Fast and furious: For a few hours tourists swarm over the reef each day

On Pemba Island, the northern island of the Zanzibar archipelago, Braack’s friend Matthew Saus is working to ensure that the gold digger phase of Ujunga is being bypassed. Pemba is a different world from Ujunga. Many say that it is like it was like Ujunga 30 years ago: rural and largely untouched by tourism. These times are probably coming to an end. The island’s population is poor, the landscape bursting with tropical abundance, the political situation stable, the infrastructure expandable. A combination which inevitably results in pressure to develop tourism.

„Pemba has a unique opportunity to get things right. It’s an all-important moment,“ says Matthew Saus, an easygoing guy with kind, blue eyes. He and his wife Carina own the Manta Resort, which sits in a bay on the Northeastern tip on the island. The place’s reputation precedes it. Even the customs officer at Pemba airport, which consists of not much more than a short airstrip, beams and gives a thumbs up when he hears that I am travelling to the Manta Resort.

Saus has very clear ideas about how to do things properly. More than that, he has already put them into practice. The Manta Resort is his somewhat personal utopia of sustainable tourism, but he avoids big explanations at first. In the first few days of my visit, he downright slips away from me. He emphasizes the financial support he received through his Swedish friends Michael and Tina Edler. He demands to talk to his staff first „so as not to water things down“. Therefore, I let the waiters, the diving instructor and the cooks tell me this amazing story. All of them come from the surrounding villages and they all tell me similar things: that they were very sceptical when Saus settled here 15 years ago. That they were afraid that tourism would wipe out their traditions, that their Muslim faith would not be respected and that all the vices of this world would invade the rural communities.

It didn’t turn out that way: „We can learn from each other,“ says Hamisi Bundala, who works here as a service worker. And General Manager Juma Bakar, who has been here almost from the beginning, adds: „What connects us is not primarily the work. We are a group of people who love other people. We are fulfilled by what we do and happy to be here.“ It doesn’t sound recited.

Remote and relaxed: The Manta Resort lies in a bay on the North Eastern shore of Pemba Island

Building the future together: Matthew and Carina Saus and their team are running the Manta Resort

The resort is the dot under the exclamation mark of the Saus family’s convoluted history: Matthew was born in Zimbabwe in 1968. His great-grandfather fled anti-Semitic pogroms from Lithuania a good hundred years ago, the other part of his family comes from Britain. He met his wife in Sweden, they moved to Zimbabwe and left the country in the mid-1990s because of political unrest. The family with three children then moved to Sweden, to Israel, to Australia. Africa, however, never let go of him: „It broke my heart many times, but that doesn’t change the fact that I feel at home here.“

On the other side of the world, in Sweden, where floating saunas are part of the fixtures of many holiday homes, he came up with an idea together with his friend, the artist Mikael Genberg: they built a wooden house that was moored in the water and whose basement consists of an underwater bedroom, an aquarium turned inside out. This construct has now been floating in the bay of the Manta Resort since ten years. At the time, the condition of the bay was bad – the offshore coral reef was at its end, he recalls. Overfishing had almost destroyed it. Ring nets had become entangled everywhere. Even dynamite fishing, a bizarre technique of blowing up entire reefs and then collecting the fish carcasses, occurred in the area. But Saus was optimistic: „The people here reminded me of the ones I knew from before. It just clicked, I got on well with everyone. I saw the potential, I saw the future.“

That future, it is here now.

The simple huts that once stood here have become sturdy houses set in a landscaped garden. There is a spacious communal area with armchairs and sofas, and tables where meals are taken. The staff is always up for a chat. Ever in view: The bay and the sea, in a way the centre of gravity of the complex. Further out, the underwater house rocks along. Today it is swarmed by fish. Saus marked the one-kilometre-long and 350-metre-wide reef in the Bay of Manta with buoys, placed it under protection – and left it to its own devices. He did not plant any corals: „I am convinced that it is nature’s job to regenerate itself. The result speaks for its astonishing resilience.

Aquatic celebrity: The Underwater Room attracts tourists, attention and thus helps the community

Early in the morning, we snorkel together along the reef and here the psychedelic look is revealed that is promised to tourists elsewhere on questionable flyers: Corals in otherworldly shades, octopuses and squid, dwarf firefish, sea bats and surgeonfish swish by. They also swim around the underwater space in such large numbers that you ask yourself who is observing whom.

This spectacle has become famous. Even at Zanzibar airport, impressions of the underwater room flicker across video screens in the international departures area. And of course, it’s popular on Instagram. Saus says he sees it primarily as a tool: „Not for me, but for what can be possible here. Of course, spending the night there is a unique experience. But the success of the underwater space is about jobs and about security.“

He himself has created 80 full-time jobs at Manta and set up an NGO, the Kwanini Foundation. Every guest of the Manta Resort pays 50 euros per night into the foundation – which supports marine conservation projects in the area of traditional fishing as well as small businesses. „Financial security“ for the population and „pride in one’s own achievement“ are Saus‘ priorities.

Daily news: The dance of the octopus can be seen in the protected marine area that belongs to the resort

Back to life: Matthew Saus put the reef under protection and left it to recover. It is now thriving

Like Jonathan Braack of andBeyond, Saus is determined to raise his principle to a maxim in the face of the emerging development of the island: „It must be approached gently and carefully. The island is fragile.“ Together with the government and with Jonathan Braack of andbeyond, he has drawn up a master plan for a „Blue Corridor“, which protects the region so that only sustainable tourism concepts will take root there: „Blue economy is about extraction and replenishment. If you cut down one tree, you plant three new ones in return. This principle is supported by the locals and the private sector.“ It takes a lot of convincing, he says, because people here live completely in the present „out of everyday necessity“.

With the work of his NGO Saus ultimately encourages a change in mentality: „Fishing is very hard work”, he says. Many would like to have a tomato or salt farm, raise chickens, bake bread, make soap or clothes.“ But that would require not only manual skills, but basic knowledge of organisation and bookkeeping. Together with Braack, he first moulded this vision into a presentation and then into a contract for the „Blue Corridor“ from Mnemba to Pemba, which would expand protected areas on a large scale. And it looks like this sustainable tourism contract could also be signed off soon.

And the tourists? Realistically, at this point in time those who want to travel sustainably in order to experience comparatively intact ecosystems have to pay a lot of money for it, or, as individual tourists, practice renunciation. The affordable middle class segment, the mass of tourists, would have to settle with already developed places. Or forgo a few holidays in order to be able to afford to snorkel through the bay at places like Manta, or relax in harmony with nature on Mnemba. Sustainable long-distance travel is a privilege that comes with financial means. One may lament this, but it does little to change the equation that intact nature plus decently paid jobs and prospects for the locals cannot be had cheaply. But one can also see it this way: The fact that many poor and marginalised people benefit from a few wealthy people is at least something new. Usually it is the other way round.

Heike Blümner
PR, Heike Blümner
Hanni Pannier, Philip Krueger