The white sandy beaches of the Indian Ocean coast and the thrill of big game safaris beneath Mount Kilimanjaro have long made Tanzania a lure for tourists.
Now the East African nation’s relaxed rules about Covid vaccination credentials have lent an added attraction. ‘Anti-vax’ tourists from Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Norway and Russia are arriving in their droves to avoid having to get jabbed in order to go on holiday.
When I recently escaped to the Zanzibar archipelago for some winter sun, I was surprised there was not a masked face to be seen, nor were there any public health warnings about the global pandemic.
It was as if Covid didn’t exist. On my travels I met many tourists who had chosen Tanzania as a holiday destination for precisely that reason - and because it does not require vaccination status for entry.
One Russian tourist from St Petersburg, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me: ‘”My country’s vaccine is not recognised in most countries, which is why I did not get it.” The 32-year-old woman had other concerns too. “Also I don’t trust it because I think it might affect my fertility and I want to have children with my husband,” she confided.
Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine was created as an alternative to vaccines developed by Chinese and Western pharmaceutical companies. But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, emergency-use listing from the World Health Organization that could open up travel to those vaccinated with Sputnik V seems more unlikely than ever.
WHO did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Dominic, an Austrian national, has been in Zanzibar for a year and decided not to return home until rules are relaxed which make the Covid vaccine mandatory in order to move around freely.
He told me: ‘I don’t like being told by the government that I must be vaccinated- it’s my body and I’ll decide whatever I put in it so I will not return to my country and live like a prisoner’.
For people like Dominic, who want to avoid being vaccinated, and for Russians unable to enter countries that do not accept Sputnik V, there is a way around their predicament.
Doctors in vaccination centres in Tanzania’s biggest city Dar es Salam are charging $150 (£115) for a Covid vaccine that is sometimes never administered. Issa, a local tour guide for trips around Mount Meru, told me the administering nurse will dump the vaccine into the trash rather inject it into the patient’s arm.
Worryingly, vaccines documented as being administered in Tanzania are recognised in the UK, most European countries and the United States.
It’s hard to gauge the scale of the pandemic in the sun-soaked country, full of high-end resorts where visitors can enjoy the crystal-clear ocean. Among a population close to 60 million people, the number of Covid cases is low. Only 33,815 cases and 800 deaths have been reported since the pandemic struck.
But there are concerns about underreporting of infections. Tanzania went well over a year without updating its number of confirmed Covid-19 cases before it began to report the data.
The country’s late president, John Magufuli, repeatedly downplayed the risk of the virus - encouraging citizens to take herbal remedies or steam inhalations to alleviate symptoms.
He died, aged 61, in March last year. The official cause of death was heart failure but rumours swirled that he’d died from coronavirus.
When his successor Samia Suluhu Hassan took office, she brought in stricter Covid measures and launched a nationwide inoculation campaign in one of the world’s last countries to embrace jabs.
Yet today only a small fraction of the population is vaccinated; Tanzania has administered just over 7 million doses so far. Vaccine hesitancy is strong, with misinformation sown early in the pandemic still widely believed.
In a hospital in Arusha, the northern city that sits between the Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro, I was offered an entire dose regimen of either Sinopharm or Pfizer. A lab technician would put both doses on the certificate, saying the dates administered were four weeks apart - all for just $120.