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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 April, 2004, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
Tanzanian island bids for tourists
Daniel Dickinson
BBC correspondent in Kilwa Kisiwani

Husuni Kubwa ruins
Kilwa's history is varied and ancient

To the untrained eye, the ruins of Husuni Kubwa palace on Kilwa Kisiwani, a small island off the southern coast of Tanzania, may seem a far from impressive array of broken walls, staircases and passages.

But it is hoped they will put one of East Africa's most important and powerful historical settlements back on the map.

The island, which is reached by a small dhow from the mainland, has long since had its heyday.

But a 600,000-euro ($712,000) regeneration project funded by the French government, which will conserve some of the island's architectural treasures, may give it a new lease of life by boosting tourism.

At the moment the island, which is a Unesco heritage site, receives on average one visitor a day.

Its inaccessibility - 300 kilometres (186 miles) south of Dar es Salaam on a bone-crunching, mostly unpaved road - and its lack of infrastructure mean that it only attracts hardy travellers or students of antiquity.

Precious ruins

But there are those who believe Kilwa Kisiwani deserves more recognition - not least French site architect Pierre Blanchard.

"The buildings here are the best examples of Swahili architecture on the coast of eastern Africa. They are on a scale seen nowhere else," he says.

Abdreheman Aboud
We want more tourists to come and spend money here
Abdreheman Aboud
Kilwa resident
The treasures of Kilwa Kisiwani include a 12th century mosque, a 15th century fort, and the 14th Century Husuni Kubwa palace, described by Mr Blanchard as an "oversized palace built by a megalomaniac sultan".

They trace the history of the island and its colonisation at different times by Shirazi Arabs, Portuguese traders and Omani sultans.

Many of the ruins on Kilwa Kisiwani are just that.

Once-great palaces and mosques, which were built on the profits of the trade in gold and slaves, have become overgrown with tropical bush and have deteriorated almost beyond conservation.

They are, however, the one hope this small fishing community of about 900 people has to pull itself out of poverty.

Living standards

Abdreheman Aboud, who has lived on Kilwa Kisiwani all his life, said he hoped for change.

Pierre Blanchard
Blanchard shows off the Grand Mosque
"We want more tourists to come and spend money here. They will help us to improve our living standards.

"It will mean big changes to our traditional way of life but we are ready for this."

The Tanzanian government has added its voice to the campaign to promote the island as a destination for cultural tourism.

Tourism Minister Zakia Hamdani Meghji said many tourists would be attracted.

"I am confident it will become a popular tourist destination," she says.

"This is just what Tanzania needs. We have the game parks, and the beaches of Zanzibar. Kilwa Kisiwani will offer something new and exciting."

Patience required

Not all tour operators agree.

Gereza Fort on Kilwa Kisiwani
The island is as inaccessible as it is beautiful
In fact, it may be the preponderance of game parks and beaches that will keep tourists away, according to Charles Dobie, the Director of the Selous Safari Company.

"Most tourists come to Tanzania for a limited period of time. They want to see the wildlife and then relax on a beach on Zanzibar.

"My experience has been that it is difficult to break that mindset," he says.

Back on Kilwa Kisiwani, the number of tourists has picked up marginally since the conservation work began just over a year ago.

It will be some time before the island is able to fulfil its tourist potential.

Until then it is likely to remain one of East Africa's little visited gems.




SEE ALSO:
Zanzibar marks 40th anniversary
12 Jan 04  |  Africa
Zanzibar pays terror price
28 Jan 03  |  Africa


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