Sometimes African service, outside the realms of a five star resort, can be incredibly frustrating. Nowhere is this more true than the train wreck that is Zanzibar International airport.
Zanzibar International Airport
Zanzibar may be the spice island, or as I have come to affectionately call it, heaven on earth. This may be due to the incredible stay we enjoyed at The Residence, but a departure from Zanzibar International airport is far from bliss. This airport is truly hell on earth.
Take note, a new terminal is under construction, and will be around five times the size of the current ‘shack’. That said, it was due to open in 2014, but at the time of our visit (October 2017) was still shrouded in scaffold. In other words, don’t count on this post becoming irrelevant any time soon. If you are heading to Zanzibar before the new terminal opens, here is what you need to know to minimise your stress.
Leaving the serenity of the Residence above and heading to the airport was truly an example of coming back down to earth with a bump.
Arriving at Zanzibar International Airport
As you descend from your air conditioned vehicle, the full chaos of Africa assaults you. Porters jostle to wrestle your luggage from you, and if you are in need of the toilet, you would be better placed to bring a she-we with you. This is the first airport I have visited with no toilets in the terminal, whether you are arriving or departing. Be sure to pay a visit on the flight, before you arrive.
If you are leaving Zanzibar and absolutely need to go, turn left before entering the line for departures. The cost to go to the loo is 500 Shillings (around 15p), but as I had no cash with me, I had to resort to trying to negotiate free access.
It did not work, but thankfully a local man took pity on me and pressed a crumpled note into my hand. Hakuna matata indeed!
Entering the airport
This will be the first line of many, as you fight (literally) to leave the island. Your luggage will need to be scanned before you enter the airport to check in, however this is by far the least painful part of the experience.
For some logistical dumbass move I cannot figure, the few flights which leave Zanzibar on a Saturday do so at roughly the same time. The airport is woefully unprepared to cope, and the Oman Air flight sadly has the longest line. After waiting 20 minutes, the same person is still at the front of the line. I have no idea what the hold up is, but at this rate, it will take until midnight to check everyone in and our flight allegedly departs at 5.15pm.
The line starts to move after he has checked in and by 4.30 we are checked in. Checked in is a loose term, as the person who serves us is the surliest airline employee I have ever come across. Her reprimand for not advising her we want our bags to be tagged only to Muscat does not impress me, especially as I had already informed the baggage staff.
Oman Air, take note, your ground staff at Zanzibar are frankly piss poor. As the ground staff weigh our bags, one guys slyly asks me to tip him for weighing my bags. Seriously?
Things only get worse as we head into immigration. I am struggling to understand whether this is really immigration or a refugee war zone as breeze blocks line one side of the enclosure and chairs slump on the floor. Inside frantic passengers, desperate to make their flights, clamour for attention.
We pick our line which turns out to be at the behest of the laziest immigration officer ever. After serving every alternate passenger, he disappears for a minute while his fellow custom offices diligently try to alleviate the lines of bellowing customers. I have never known a country fingerprint and photograph a visitor on both the way in and out!
I am not averse to extra security, however it would be wise to tell passengers to arrive 3 hours beforehand if this is the norm. We are in danger of missing our flight, as we edge ever closer to the front of the line, only for our immigration officer to quit as we reach the front. No apology, no explanation, nothing – he just jumps up and walks off disappearing into the crowd.
My patience is wearing thin, so I start gesticulating to the neighbouring officer who tells me to jump in front. The Italian family beside me almost have a meltdown, and I start getting abuse from the matriarch.
I try explaining to her that we are not pushing in, and in fact have waited the same amount of time as them. They may be about to miss their flight but so are we. I suspect it is highly unlikely these planes will leave without their passengers, but this airport is pure chaos, so anything is plausible.
I find myself having to control my temper, as I try to nudge Jason in for his immigration check. By this time, everyone’s tempers are frayed and I am amazed a fist fight has not erupted.
To add insult to injury, over the tannoy, announcements indicate the impending departure of the flights. Ground staff urge us onto the plane but there is yet one more hurdle to pass. We have to scan our bags once again.
This results in more lines, the only consolation being that the waiting room is empty because of this complete shambles. In some respects, it is a relief as there are no facilities, no refreshments, shops or anything. I guess when it takes you so long to get through check in, security and immigration, such basics are pointless as no one will ever use them.
Top tips for navigating this airport
- Forget the two hour rule – if you want to avoid heart attack inducing stress, I recommend arriving three hours before. This will give you plenty of leeway to ensure you are not clamouring to get through immigration.
- Stock up on refreshments at check in – the only refreshment counter is upstairs above check in. Grab any drinks you want there, as if you do happen to have enough time to sit in the waiting area, you won’t have access to any food or drink.
- Pay a visit in flight or at the paid departure toilets outside the terminal – this way you will not get caught short.
Of course, if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford it, I recommend following in the footsteps of many other visitors and flying private. A girl can dream right….?
Give me wine
By the time I finally make it onto the plane and sink into my seat, I am ready for a glass of wine. In fact, bring out the bucket….
I guess the only consolation is that Zanzibar is incredible and this hell is worth it to experience views like this one!
What airport horrors have you experienced? I would love to hear your stories and how you managed them.
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