Chumbe Island: Marine Ecotourism at its Best

This article was originally published by Lights of Africa, an 8-month media expedition throughout Southern and Eastern Africa. The expedition is led by TIES Travel Ambassador Mikael Castro, and his father Haroldo Castro, an award-winning video producer, photographer and journalist.

Chumbe Island Coral Park, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Chumbe Island, a half-mile-long coral rag island just eight miles south of Zanzibar’s infamous Stone Town, has become a celebrated ecotourism success story in the Zanzibar archipelago. Its history is a narrative best told directly by Sibylle Riedmiller, a German conservationist who came to Chumbe looking for a coral reef to protect in the late 80s. After years of complex negotiations among several actors, Sibylle’s determination persevered and in 1994 Chumbe Island Coral Park (CHICOP) became Tanzania’s first marine protected area gazetted by the Zanzibar Government.

Geared-up with snorkels and fins and floating just a couple hundred yards off shore parallel the island, we witnessed first-hand the motive behind creating a Chumbe’s marine reserve. “There is a blue-spotted sting ray over here” called out Karlyn Langjahr, Chumbe’s project manager. A few minutes later, Khamis, former fisherman and now guide and park ranger, pointed out a hawksbill turtle swimming our way, followed by a huge grouper fish.

What is most amazing about Chumbe, besides the 400 species of fish that can be seen in this reef, is the amount and the diversity of the corals reef. Neither of us, in our years of snorkeling and diving (from the Caribbean to the Philippines), have seen such an amazing coral garden.

While she has won nearly every international and local award in sustainable tourism (from the World Legacy Award to Tourism for Tomorrow Award), Sibylle remains focused marine conservation and environmental education rather than ecotourism. The revenue from tourism on Chumbe merely provides the means for the conservation of the Coral Reef Sanctuary and Forest Reserve along with the extensive list of educational initiatives. Chumbe’s staff, numbering near 40 – a pretty good staff-to-guest ratio with a capacity for some 15 overnight guests – includes trained park rangers who serve as guides.

Nearly all staff members are native to Tanzania, most from Zanzibar’s main island. The park rangers, many former fishermen from neighboring villages, have been trained in park management and monitoring techniques for reef and forest. Along with local and international researchers supported by CHICOP, they have collected data indicating that fish size and marine diversity have increased in the coral park while illegal fishing incidents have significantly decreased.

After our candle-lit dinner on the beach, we went in search of the Chumbe’s night life. Saidck Magwiza, who began as waiter in 2000 and after years of training became an assistant manager, took us to the rag forest of the island to find the world’s largest land crab. These crabs can reach up to a foot and a half in diameter.

As we retreat to our bungalow for the night we are reminded why Chumbe received such high marks in ecotourism. Each of the seven eco-bungalows was constructed using local materials as self-sustaining units with their own rainwater catchment, composting toilets, grey water filtration, and photovoltaic panels for electricity. The room temperature is regulated by a fan that runs on solar energy and a thatched-wall lowered by a coconut fiber rope, providing a bedside view of the Indian Ocean.

Chumbe Island Coral Park

Chumbe Island Coral Park is a not for profit private company, founded in 1994 to manage the conservation and environmental education programmes within the conservation area on Chumbe Island, on behalf of the Government of Zanzibar. These activities are funded through sustainable ecotourism operated on the island since 1998. The island only uses sustainable technologies such as solar power, compost toilets, rain water harvesting etc. in order to have as little as possible impact on the surrounding environment.

Mikael Castro, TIES Travel Ambassador

Mikael Castro is TIES Travel Ambassador (2009-2011). Having worked with TIES in several capacities, Mikael is now on a six-month expedition throughout Southern and Eastern Africa, documenting ecotourism initiatives as well as various stakeholder perspectives of ecotourism as a tool for bio-cultural conservation. You will be able to follow Mikael’s adventures in Africa at: