The lockdown-free 'Sweden of Africa' that's welcoming British tourists

Tanzania is known for its wealth of safari options
Tanzania is known for its wealth of safari options Credit: istock
Tanzania never issued a lockdown, reports a (dubiously) low case count, and you can enter restriction-free

In a world where governments have largely followed one another in their approach to managing the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been difficult to assess what might have happened had we not locked down as forcefully as we did.

Sweden provides a notable exception, having refused throughout to copy the rest of Europe in shutting society down, opting instead for voluntary guidelines, and where life has been operating pretty much as normal.

Tanzania has emerged as another. It is the only country in Africa to have taken an unapologetically lax approach to restrictions. From the outset, its president John Magufuli entirely refused any sort of lockdown and has kept the borders open, hailing the nation’s economy “more important than the threat posed by coronavirus”.

Deeply cynical of the rest of the world’s response to Covid, he went as far as to order tests be conducted on fruit to demonstrate the problem of their unreliability. Low and behold, a pawpaw tested positive for the virus. Magufuli promptly fired several senior government advisors, including the health minister.

In June, the devout Catholic leader announced that Tanzania was virus-free, stating: “I believe, and I'm certain that many Tanzanians believe, that the corona disease has been eliminated by God.”

President John Magufuli – not a fan of lockdown Credit: getty

Of course, this is highly unlikely, not to mention nigh impossible to prove given the country stopped releasing infection-related data on April 29. On paper, Tanzania has recorded 509 cases and 21 total deaths.

Anecdotally, however, there are several reports from those who have spent time there which indicate that no great cover-up is taking place, and that life in Tanzania is indeed operating just as it did pre-pandemic.

Writing for View from the Wing, recent visitor Steve Belkin states: “Most notable is the utter lack of any anecdotal serious cases requiring hospitalization or ending in death. 

“Every person I have had contact with, I have asked about if they had friends, family, co-workers, neighbours, etc. with serious cases. I went to bustling marketplaces, local ferries, even two political party rallies, so I was able to query hundreds of people.

“I detoured to local hospitals in Pemba, Mafia and Zanzibar and they were all empty. There is no media blackout or propaganda assault here. People are exposed to all of the international news channels that are churning out daily case spikes and body counts. So, there is no blissful ignorance. But there does seem to be an intriguing sense of bliss.”

Likewise, the BBC’s correspondent in Tanzania, Sammy Awamiv, spoke to three doctors off the record, none of whom said they’d been “overwhelmed” with cases. He writes: “How did a country with some of the most relaxed coronavirus measures in Africa manage to so far escape the kind of crisis which has visited many parts of the world? It's a question puzzling even those of us who are living in the country. 

“Despite what many of Magufuli’s critics (and the more anxious among us) feared was a woefully reckless approach, the nation seems to have avoided for now the catastrophic number of deaths that many anticipated.

“The most confusing thing about all of this is that no-one really knows how.”

Much as Magufuli has ridiculed leaders from other nations, he has been enthusiastic in encouraging their foreign citizens to drop in; Tanzania being one of the only African country to have kept its borders open. Speaking in June, he boasted: “Some airline operators are fully booked – until August – with tourists who want to visit Tanzania.”

Tanzania also boasts magnificent islands including Zanzibar Credit: den-belitsky

The sector contributes about 17 per cent to the country’s GDP and employs some 600,000 people. Like every other nation on Earth, the industry suffered a huge decline after the pandemic hit; a drop in visitor numbers of 76 per cent, from 1.9 million last year to approximately 437,000 in June, according to its minister of tourism Hamisi Kigwangalla.

But there are signs of a rebound, with airlines including Emirates, Qatar, KLM and Swiss Air all now operating flights to Kilimanjaro International Airport. “We have won the confidence of tourists, and the world knows that we have all necessary public health measures in place to ensure the safety of our visitors,” said Kilimanjaro regional commissioner Anna Mghwira in a statement, not exactly singing from the same hymn sheet as her president. 

There is much to tempt a visit to Tanzania, not least Africa’s largest mountain. It is also a top safari destination; home to the Serengeti, the ancient Ngorongoro Crater, and a gateway to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Intrigued? Read on.

How to visit Tanzania

Around 75,000 British nationals visit Tanzania every year, and you could be one of them.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) still advises against all-but essential travel there, making insurance more difficult (but not impossible) to secure, and you’ll need to quarantine for 14 days upon your return.

You won’t face restrictions when entering Tanzania, however. No isolation period is required, nor is a negative Covid-19 test (which makes sense given Magufuli’s disdain for their efficacy). According to the FCDO, you may be subjected to a temperature check at the airport. 

Masks aren’t mandatory, nor widely worn, anywhere in Tanzania, though airlines all require they be worn throughout the journey to reach it.

Flights are few and far between from the UK, but there are indirect routes from London next month; including flights with Turkish Airlines with a stop in Istanbul for around £400 return. This is a great tool for researching options when it comes to more obscure or underserved destinations.

Over to you: Would you risk a trip to Tanzania amid the pandemic? Let us know in the comments box below.