For much of its history, Pemba has been overshadowed by Zanzibar, its larger, more visible and more politically powerful neighbour to the south. Although the islands are separated by only about 50km of water, relatively few tourists make their way across the channel for a visit. Those who do, however, are seldom disappointed.
Unlike flat, sandy Zanzibar, Pemba’s terrain is hilly, fertile and lushly vegetated. In the days of the Arab traders it was even referred to as ‘al Khuthera’ or ‘the Green Island’. Throughout much of the period when the sultans of Zanzibar held sway over the East African coast, it was Pemba, with its extensive clove plantations and agricultural base, that provided the economic foundation for the archipelago’s dominance.
Pemba has also been long renowned for its voodoo and traditional healers, and people come from throughout East Africa seeking cures or to learn the skills of the trade.
Much of the island’s coast is lined with mangroves and tidal creeks and lagoons, and Pemba is not a beach destination. However, there are a few good stretches of sand and some idyllic offshore islets. In the surrounding waters, coral reefs, the steeply dropping walls of the Pemba channel and an abundance of fish offer some rewarding diving.
The tourism industry on Pemba is small and low-key, and infrastructure is for the most part fairly basic, although this is slowly but steadily changing, with an ever-increasing number of upmarket hotels and more development on the way. It will be a while, however, before tourism here reaches the proportions it’s taken on Zanzibar. Much of Pemba is relatively ‘undiscovered’ and you’ll still have things more or less to yourself, which is a big part of the island’s charm. The main requirement for travelling around independently is time, as there’s little regular transport off the main routes.