The Zanzibar Airport

The world's worst international airport?

Feb 2020

Filed under: tanzania

We flew through 25 airports during this round-the-world trip, but none were as memorable as Abeid Amani Karume International Airport in Zanzibar. Both the arrival and the departure were notable, both in their own unique way. We’ll start with the arrival.

The Zanzibar airport is one of those airports without any jetbridges, so you land and disembark on the tarmac, where a bus picks you up and deposits you at the customs and immigration area. This means that upon exiting the plane, you're immediately hit with 90 degree heat and insane humidity. So by the time you get on the bus, which has limited air conditioning, you're already working up a sweat as you head to immigration.

To their credit, even back in mid-February, the Zanzibaris were on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, as at the entrance to customs and immigration, airport workers were waiting to take everyone's temperature. We were also required to complete two forms each, including one for health screening / contact tracing. In our case, we each filled out three forms because we made mistakes, or in Tiffany’s case, because the original form was in Italian and from what we could tell, the fields in no way matched the form Brian completed.

So there we were, in Zanzibar’s immigration area, filling out forms galore. Despite being two of the first into the building the paperwork took so long that we ended up being some of the last to actually get in line to be processed. The lines are incredibly confusing and somehow we were directed to a “line” for Tanzanian nationals although there were clearly only tourists in this line. The immigration area was not air conditioned, so by this point, we were quite sweaty.

Tempers were also getting warm. We might have skipped ahead of some other tourists by going all the way to the right, but in the chaos and heat, who can tell?

After waiting in line for 20 minutes or so, we reached the window, where we met some of the happiest immigration officers we have ever encountered. Their happiness may be related to their being enclosed in a tiny air conditioned booth, watching tourists melt. Our immigration officer spent a rather long time trying to figure out if Brian was related to the Danish man in the adjacent line. Eventually, we were handed our papers back and told to go pay our visa-on-arrival fee at a booth across the room.

After another few moments waiting in line to pay, the visa processing lady tells us there's a problem with our ticket. Apparently, the immigration guys had so much fun that they inadvertently gave us a discount on our visas. You see, Tanzania charges all countries $50 for single entry tourist visas, but they require Americans to get the $100 multiple entry tourist visa. So we had to wait while the immigration agents completed corrected forms. Once that was all figured out and we paid $200 to enter Zanzibar, we were pointed back to the immigration booth to resume joking with the immigration guys, and to get our passports stamped so we could enter the country.

All in all, a confusing and long process with lots of sweat but we made it!

Departing from the Zanzibar airport was even more confusing, time consuming, and sweatier. Before we even set out for the airport, our Airbnb host had warned us to get there as early as possible, as the airport is notoriously slow and behind the times. She illustrated this by recounting the excitement a few years back when they finally got a conveyor belt, and telling us she misses her flights about 1/3 of the time.

Sure enough, we arrived to find an epic crowd lined up outside the airport. After a few minutes shuffling forward in line, we discovered two security guys (or randos, as they had no uniforms) were checking boarding passes to direct people to one of four outdoor lines, presumably based on their flight time. However, the security randos gave vague directions, so the lines all blurred together into a sweaty, confused mass of humanity that eventually funneled down to four roped lanes. Every few minutes, an airport employee would call for passengers for a particular destination to join him in the domestic security entrance, and panic would ensue as sweaty Europeans would begin shoving their way through the crowd, and remaining passengers hurried to fill any gap as soon as it appeared, even in neighboring lanes. As we got closer to the entrance, we could see that this mass of people and four ill-defined lanes were eventually going through a single metal detector, just to get into the check-in area.

Fueling the crowd's desperation to get into the airport was the foolish assumption that inside, air conditioning would provide some relief from the Zanzibar heat and humidity. We can assure you, there was no relief.

After check-in, we were directed to the immigration area, where we waited nearly an hour to get stamped out of the country. This immigration booth sits adjacent to the security screening area, which gave us a false sense of hope that we were almost done with lines. Instead, after getting stamped, a guard blocked the way and pointed us to the back of the security line, which wrapped around back to the check-in area and resembled a cattle pen. We waited shoulder to shoulder with a clump of very sweaty and frustrated Europeans, inching forward towards the security checkpoint.

We passed through the security checkpoint a full three hours after we first arrived at the airport. The waiting area was packed, but we found some seating right next to one of the only fans in the country. We still had a few Tanzanian shillings, so Brian went off in search of a snack or some water. He returned with a single can of beer. When he handed the beer to Tiffany, she recoiled in disgust because the beer was room temperature - in an unconditioned airport. Somehow Brian managed to drink a large portion of the beer. At last, we heard the boarding call for our flight to Muscat, Oman, and we left the brief comfort of the fan for one last blast of humidity on the tarmac, relieved to depart the world's most wretched airport.