Mafia Island is hardly a tourist hot spot, but it has built a small but passionate following among travelers drawn by its simple charms and serene atmosphere.

Share story

The New York Times


When seen on arrival by air, Mafia Island doesn’t appear to be much more than a crescent-shaped splash of green off the eastern coast of Africa. Slightly smaller than New York City, the verdant island, 20 miles from mainland Tanzania, is densely covered in coconut trees, with nothing but green flora visible in the interior and just a few intermittent stretches of white sand breaking up the coast.

Just a half-hour after leaving Dar es Salaam, our shaky 12-seater approached a dirt-and-gravel runway. As we made our descent, a few sparks of civilization flashed into view: a lone wooden dhow patrolled the coastline; a trio of gleeful children pointed up at the plane from the edge of a marshy mangrove; two women wrapped in colorful kangas, traditional African dresses, and headscarves walked by with large clay pots balanced on their heads.

With just a few thousand annual visitors, Mafia Island is hardly a tourist hot spot, and has few of the high-end accouterments that draw hordes of honeymooners to other Indian Ocean isles like the Seychelles, Mauritius and Zanzibar. Over the past decade, though, it has built a small but passionate following among travelers drawn by its simple charms and serene atmosphere.

Serene, that is, on land; underwater, a protected marine preserve offers some of the most magnificent diving and snorkeling in the region, perhaps the world. Sea turtles, stingrays and the occasional white-tipped reef shark troll these waters nearly year-round.

International draw

While few modern travelers know its name, Mafia has drawn international visitors since at least the 11th century, when it served as an important trading base for Shirazi sailors who controlled the region. Later, the island became a hub for the Middle East slave trade, then a military base for German, and eventually British, colonists. (While Italians number high among the expats running lodges on Mafia today, the island’s name has nothing to do with organized crime; it likely derives from the ancient Arabic word for archipelago.)For the past century, Mafia and its 40,000 residents have been mostly ignored by the outside world, reached only by slow ferries from Tanzania.

That began to change in 1995, when the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental activists successfully lobbied the Tanzanian government to protect the southern half of the island and the surrounding waters as the Mafia Island Marine Park. The 510-square-mile preserve is home to 400 species of fish and 48 types of corals, as well as giant green sea turtles and at least a few nearly extinct manatee-like dugong.

With fishing and other industry sharply curtailed inside the preserve, Mafia’s rich reefs soon began attracting the attention of divers. After fishermen on the western side of the island discovered that friendly whale sharks liked the plankton-rich waters there, boats taking groups out to swim with the brightly spotted creatures became reason for water-bound visitors to stay longer.

Regular air service from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s main point of entry, was added in 2006. The number of lodges and guesthouses on the island has mushroomed from just a handful a few years ago to roughly two dozen today. In 2010 the number of international visitors was up 300 percent from four years earlier, according to local government statistics — although the total number was still a modest 4,100 people.

“Most people who make the effort to come to Mafia are of a particular mindset,” said Michelle Vickers, who was raised in Tanzania and lived in Britain before returning four years ago with her husband, John, to open Ras Mbisi Lodge, an eco-conscious resort on the west side of the island. “They aren’t looking for incredibly high-end luxury. They just want a place to chill out, relax, and not feel that because they’ve chosen to stay somewhere sustainable that it has to be hard work.”

After two days of snorkeling and swimming inside the marine park, I headed off on my own to Ras Mbisi Lodge. Hailing one of a handful of the 4×4 taxis that ply the island’s dirt roads, I reached the thatched-roof compound after a bumpy, 40-minute drive. There, luxury beachside bandas, or cabins, are built from sustainable, indigenous coconut wood, lighted with biogas-powered electricity and stocked with solar-heated water.

The resort blends seamlessly into the coconut groves, with nary another unnatural object visible along the five-mile expanse of beach that fronts the property. On an early evening walk, I shared the entire stretch with just a few others: a fisherman tending to his dugout canoe; two women hunched over in the low tide, digging for clams; and dozens of sand crabs that skittered out of their holes and into the sea.

Though the lodge arranges excursions, including trips out to swim with whale sharks, I chose to spend my time reading alone on the beach with nothing in sight but coconut trees and an endless expanse of aquamarine water. I was happy to be disturbed only when summoned for meals centered on the catch of the day — turmeric-scented, beer-battered squid one evening; hot green chiles atop fresh filets of a local snapper known as chugu the next.

Not everything went smoothly, though nothing was complaint-worthy. A generator that provided electricity failed at one point, but I was able to read via the hand-cranked, battery-free flashlight provided to each room. The solar-powered water supply worked great the first morning, but I made do with a cold shower on the second.

Ras Mbisi isn’t alone among eco-lodges; others take the small-footprint efforts even farther. Manzie Omar Mangochie, the district commissioner of Mafia, said there is a conscious effort by the government to develop the tourism industry without overwhelming the island and its residents.

“We want more development and we want more tourism here, but we don’t want it to turn into another Zanzibar,” he said. “The essence of Mafia isn’t tourism. It is about conservation and minimizing human impact.”

This emphasis on maintaining limits isn’t just talk. There are no big international hotel chains on the island, and most of the lodges have committed to hiring only locals. In 2010, a huge trance music festival that had previously taken place in Greece began to set up an offshoot event here, but island officials quashed the project and tickets had to be refunded.

The big question, of course, is whether Mafia can maintain its laid-back milieu and dedication to conservation if its popularity continues to grow. A tarmac runway that would allow larger planes to land is in the works, as is a jetty that could welcome additional ferry travelers from the mainland.

“Of course there will be more hotels,” Mangochie said. “More flights means we will need more rooms. But our goal here is to find a balance between welcoming visitors and protecting what we already have.”