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How a $33,000-a-night private island inspired by the Kennedys became a beacon for sustainable tourism

Thanda Island, a speck of sand off the Tanzanian coast, has room for only a handful of guests, but space enough for many thousands of inhabitants.

A luxury estate which must be rented in its entirety, where prices start at $33,000 per night, you’ll have to share this tropical hideaway with some of Mother Nature’s most majestic creatures, including the largest fish in the sea, the whale shark.

Located a 30-minute helicopter ride from Tanzania’s biggest city, Dar es Salaam, Thanda sits amid a private marine reserve with a rigorous conservation and restoration program ­– one that is already reaping rewards for visitors as well as the surrounding island communities.

The brainchild of Swedish entrepreneurs Dan and Christin Olofsson, Thanda Island Hotel has been in operation since 2016.

“They wanted to create the ultimate escape,” says general manager Antigone Meda, who explains that multigenerational families and groups of friends are the island’s typical guests, with most staying for five to eight nights.

The island's villa is the main accommodation, with a design inspired by the Kennedy family's beach house in the US. - courtesy Thanda Island
The island's villa is the main accommodation, with a design inspired by the Kennedy family's beach house in the US. - courtesy Thanda Island

The island features a villa and two open-air beach chalets. “The villa was very inspired by the Kennedys’ beach home,” Meda says, referring to the compound in Cape Cod that belonged to the family of JFK. “It breeds beach romance, nostalgia, (with) a touch of East African flare.”

Thanda strives to be as self-sufficient as possible, she adds, with a seawater desalination plant on site, rainwater harvesting, and powered by the largest off-grid solar farm in Tanzania, she claims. Organic waste is turned into compost.

But the hotel’s sustainability credentials are only part of the allure for the environmentally conscious traveller. The island sits within Mafia Island Marine Park, and more specifically, Shungimbili Island Marine Reserve, which guests have exclusive use of during their stay.

Beyond the island’s white sand beaches, activities include jet skiing, jet boarding, kayaking, sailing, wind surfing and kite surfing. Diving and snorkelling are the most prized sports, however. Whale sharks, humpback whales and blacktip reef sharks are a short boat ride away.

These species are being fostered by the island’s conservation program, which started in 2017 with the hiring of a marine biologist, kickstarting a team that has expanded significantly since, including a partnership with the Tanzanian Marine Parks and Reserves Unit.

Whale sharks are frequent visitors to the waters near the island, with over 120 individuals identified. - courtesy Thanda Island
Whale sharks are frequent visitors to the waters near the island, with over 120 individuals identified. - courtesy Thanda Island

The island itself has a protected turtle nesting area (five species live in the area, with green turtles hatching from 2017), but much of the work takes place at sea.

Hassan Jumbe is the dive master at Thanda and works on its coral restoration project. A 10-minute boat ride from the island is a coral nursery tended by Jumbe, where found coral fragments are cut into smaller pieces and cemented to ropes hanging from floating pontoons, and allowed to grow. Another technique involves clipping small corals to the seabed, giving them space to grow.

Jumbe started in 2022, and says in the island’s immediate waters there “was not so many fish.”

“There’s a big difference now,” he adds. “We have a very healthy reef and also a lot of fish around. So for the local people, they are so proud of it.”

“The ocean is our life”

The dive master explains that 90% of the nearby population, found primarily on Mafia Island, 16 nautical miles away, rely on fishing for a livelihood. While the private reserve is off limits, Jumbe says, the reefs allow a safe breeding space, with populations that spill out over a wider area beyond it, which can be fished in a more sustainable fashion.

“The ocean is our life,” Jumbe adds. “A lot of people didn’t realize how important the coral is.”

Meda says the project aims to cover and restore one hectare of reef over the next five years.

As well as reef restoration, the island hosts a turtle hatching zone. Five turtle species live in the marine park around Thanda Island. - courtesy Thanda Island
As well as reef restoration, the island hosts a turtle hatching zone. Five turtle species live in the marine park around Thanda Island. - courtesy Thanda Island

“I remember when I first came here, I would see one or two blacktip reef sharks. We now have a thriving population of them. You jump in the water and you could almost be surrounded,” she says. One hundred and twenty individual whale sharks have been recorded in the waters, she adds.

The benefits to tourism have been married to a number of projects engaging with the Mafia Island community. The majority of employees at Thanda Island come from the neighboring island, and Thanda supports a series of entrepreneurs and small businesses there, says Meda. Jumbe says other people from Mafia Island have been trained in open water diving and coral restoration.

“Some guests go as far as helping us with some of our projects on Mafia Island that we run,” she adds. “They feel a sense of responsibility. It makes them happy that luxury travel can actually make a positive impact.”

Cherae Robinson, founder and CEO of luxury travel operator Tastemakers Africa, says Tanzania’s “really dynamic” coastal region is on her radar.

“(A) holistic approach to sustainable tourism is really finding its foot(ing) on the continent, because so much of tourism on the continent is in connection with the environment. And so you’re seeing sustainability really on the cutting edge in some places,” she explains.

The World Travel Awards has named Thanda Island the “World’s Leading Exclusive Private Island” for the last eight years.

Like the corals off its pristine shores, its reputation continues to grow and grow.

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