Most tourists who visit Zanzibar Town use the services of a guide at some stage during their stay. The services of a guide are included if you come on an organized tour arranged at home. The price always includes a guide to show you around even if you arrange something simple through a tour company on the spot, for example, a trip to the spice plantations.
Guides must be registered, Papaasi are not
The guides from reputable companies have to be registered with the Tourism Commission. They have to carry identity cards with them whilst on duty.
Beach boys (papaasi) on Zanzibar
But, there are a lot of other guides in Zanzibar Island who are not registered at all. These are not real guides at all. These are hustlers and touts who make their money getting groups together to share boat rides, showing tourists to souvenir shops and hotels or arranging transport. They are locally known as the papaasi or the beach-boys!
There is usually a group of papaasi on the dockside when a ship comes into Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam. Some of them can be quite aggressive but a few are not too unpleasant and will help you find a place to stay which may be useful, as the labyrinth of alleys in Stone Town is disorientating at first. You have to tell them exactly what you want in terms of price and standard. It should not cost you any more money because the papaasi gets a commission from the hotel. This could save you a lot of walking.
This plan does not always work
But, hey, this plan does not always work, unfortunately! This is due to some hotels paying more commission than others and some do not pay at all. This makes them only take you to the places where they get a decent cut and not otherwise.
I have heard from several travelers who arrived on Zanzibar aiming to stay in a certain hotel only to be told by the welcome party of papaasi that it was burnt down, closed or even full. It is best to be polite but firm or simply to just ignore them completely and find your own hotel if you are in any doubt. You should make a phone call or send an email to reserve a room in advance. Some hotels give discounts for advance bookings to their customers.
Beware of guiding offers
After arranging your hotel, many of the papaasi will want to be your guide while offering to show you around the sights or souvenir shops of Stone Town, Nungwi and other places, arrange transport to the east coast or to find companions for dive trips or boat excursions. Beware, you have to use these services if you need them but be prepared to pay if necessary, or be aware that the owners of the boats and dive centers and souvenir shops will have to pay commission to the papaasi. A charge will be passed on to you, of course.
Some beach boys are outright crooks; they are involved in robberies, drug dealing and other crimes. Some papaasi are con-men and some travelers have been stung arranging budget hire cars where a papaasi has taken a deposit then simply disappeared!
Changing money is an expensive operation
Another potentially expensive operation is changing money where initially tempting good rates precede sleight-of-hand tricks or just snatch and run theft. Budget travelers have also reported having drugs planted on them by papaasi they befriended who then reported them to the police; any fines which are official or unofficial paid out included a kickback to the informant. Beware!
A final word…
If you decide to go for a papaasi-arranged boat trip it may be with an unregistered boat. This means compromised safety and if anything goes wrong you will not get your money back.
If you want a knowledgeable and reliable guide for a spice tour or to show you around the Stone Town or Nungwi, it is better to arrange via a local tour agency or your hotel.
If you are not interested in papaasi services then just explain this politely and firmly. You may have to do it several times while in Zanzibar.
If you deal only with reputable tour companies with lower or higher budgets you will have none of these problems at all. Some papaasi have managed to get identity cards just like trustworthy guides. These IDs could be fakes or just stolen – it is hard to tell. This, of course, is confusing for tourists!
There is a need for legitimate guides on Zanzibar Island who can help tourists without harassing them and it is hoped that the government department responsible for tourism will apply itself to this matter in the near future.