Dar es Salaam city and the tourist ‘experience’

Written by Ryan Whitney, Project Officer: Local Initiatives – Tourism

Ryan Whitney is a Sustainable Cities : PLUS Network CIDA IYIP intern based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

The following article was published as a special report  in “ThisDay”, a Dar es Salaam newspaper. For the original article, click here.

Tanzania is becoming an increasingly popular destination for tourists, establishing itself as an East-African destination with nearly one million international visitors annually.

The country offers visitors outstanding natural and human-made landscapes: From world-renowned wildlife adventures, to immaculate beaches, to historic architecture and a uniquely African culture.

Dar es Salaam, however, only attracts a small portion of the tourism market. Many tourists use the city as a hub en route to other destinations, including Zanzibar, the Serengeti, and Mount Kilimanjaro. Because of this, the city is missing out on potential tourist dollars, opportunities for job creation, and a chance to re-brand itself as a desirable destination.

Central Dar es Salaam

Many variables can explain discrepancies between tourist numbers in Dar es Salaam versus Tanzania. For example, it is difficult for tourists to navigate the city; taxi drivers prove to be unfamiliar with local attractions, and the barter pricing system is very intimidating. Moreover, attractions are disjointed and unclear; many tourists leave the city because they had inadequate access to information.

Other problems persist. Dar contains many assets that remain ignored and disconnected from the city and municipal governments. These assets include the physical elements of the city, as well as cultural groups and entrepreneurs that have yet to be integrated and leveraged into municipal planning.

Tourists are coming to Tanzania for a unique experience yet the focus in Dar seems to remain on small-scale attractions like monuments and museums. This approach greatly differs from the ‘experiences’ offered by other more popular destinations, such as a safari adventure in the Serengeti or the impressive architecture of Zanzibar.

Tourists want to experience the unique aspects of the places they visit, and simply viewing a monument does not hold most people’s interest.

Recognizing our assets

One example of an underutilized asset is the downtown waterfront that was central to the establishment of Dar. It currently sits polluted, inaccessible to the public, and full of garbage.

Zanzibar provides an example of how cities can market themselves successfully to tourists and locals. In 2009, the city completed a restoration project providing waterfront access via a public promenade and an open-air market.

The renovated space encourages public engagement within the waterfront district, and conveys a very important message: people belong in this space. The promenade not only allows for economic activities, such as a public market, but it provides a medium where people can socialize and connect with one another and to their surroundings.

So, what does our waterfront offer? Not much. In fact, a long fence prevents public access. What message does this convey? It suggests that our city is not a place to enjoy, but rather, a place to avoid.

It is no surprise that tourists are not spending time in our city if our planning practices are sending implicit messages that they are not welcome in the first place.

Tourists want to engage with local arts and culture, and they want to experience the unique identity of place. Part of this process involves creating a ‘stage’ where people can access cultural experiences and see what life is like in Tanzania. This ‘stage’ can take the form of an active public space similar to the waterfront redevelopment in Zanzibar.

People can see impressive museums and world-class monuments in countless places all over the globe. But what can Dar es Salaam offer that is different and unique to our region?

This vital question must be asked by tourism stakeholders and, with a little investigative research, it is easy to see that our tourism future partially rests in the local arts, culture, and entrepreneur-based scene.

What’s going on in Dar?

There are many examples of local entrepreneurs engaged in projects of interest to tourists. Examples include Afri Roots, a local organization that provides cycling tours of unplanned settlements. There is also Visa 2 Dance, an organization that trains and provides space for contemporary dancers with the goal of creating a dance festival every October.

The Wonder Workshop provides training for local people to create innovative art from recycled materials. All groups offer a unique way to experience the city and provide insight into local life and culture.

Unfortunately, the city lacks the organizational and financial resources to provide local cultural groups and entrepreneurs with the necessary funds to generate exposure.

In fact, most government officials remain disconnected from what is occurring at the ground level in the communities they represent. On the other hand, local groups and entrepreneurs are unable to share their projects to local officials for fear of rejection, corruption, or inadequate access.

The tourism potential of Dar es Salaam is not maximized despite many small-scale initiatives. The result is a complex web of projects and attractions dispersed throughout the city with few actors connecting them.

It is easy to understand why tourists feel like there are very few activities to engage in. If city officials and locals do not have a comprehensive understanding of what is going on in the community, how can tourists access these activities and attractions?

Fortunately, changes are slowly occurring. The Dar es Salaam Tourism Executive Board (DTEB) was formed in 2007 and is working towards increasing tourism in Dar es Salaam. Key projects include the opening of a tourism booth at the International Airport, a Taxi Driver Training Framework, and a heritage building protection programme.

More specifically, the tourism booth at the International Airport will provide information to incoming tourists on local attractions, activities, projects, and accommodations, and will help tourists form ‘first impressions’ of Tanzania and Dar es Salaam.

The Taxi Driver Training Framework will educate taxi drivers on attractions in Dar es Salaam and will provide standardized pricing. Taxi drivers who complete the training will receive a certification sticker. The heritage building protection programme will identify buildings of historical significance and generate funding to place plaques near their entrances.

While the DTEB represents progress towards a more accessible tourism market, many issues still persist. One of the most important gaps in the current tourism strategy is communication.

Bridging the Gap

A successful tourism strategy works at both the governmental and grassroots level. On one hand, the government works to promote and develop urban assets such as the waterfront. On the other hand, local entrepreneurs develop new and innovative projects related to art, culture, and regional identity. Together, a comprehensive set of attractions and activities can be delivered and marketed to tourists.

Communication is key between both groups. If stakeholders at the city level are knowledgeable about what is happening in the community, then they can engage and support the entrepreneurs and market the projects to tourists.

For this process to be successful there must be a knowledge transfer between city officials and community-based organizations. In other words, a person who is knowledgeable about city planning as well as community level projects is needed to bridge the gap.

Communication is especially important in Dar es Salaam, where nearly 80 percent of the population lives in unplanned settlements and in isolation from city officials.

Integrating tourism projects on the government and community-based levels will ensure greater access to these projects by tourists. Communication can help prevent project clusters that remain disconnected from each other and from tourists. The result will help display our unique regional identity and integrate tourists into the landscape of Dar Es Salaam.

For the future

It is time that our city builds upon its physical and cultural assets. The physical assets, such as the waterfront, are future opportunities that need to be used to their full potential. The cultural assets, such as local art and culture groups, are available resources that must be coordinated and marketed to tourists.

Gone are they days when tourists are satisfied with a visit to a museum or a monument. People want to be given an experience that they will remember. People are, after all, coming to Tanzania to experience something different from what they experience at home.

Above all we need to signal to both locals and tourists alike that Dar es Salaam is a place where people, life, and culture flourish.

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Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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