CONTROVERSY surrounds the ownership of a tourist island located in southern Tanzania following reports that the government sold the prime piece of land to Swedish investors in fishy circumstances despite it being located within a protected area where human activity is strictly prohibited.
Swedish couple Dan and Christin Olofsson are reported to have bought Thanda Island about ten years ago and transformed it into a private sanctuary offering arguably the country's most expensive accommodation at $10,000 (over 22 million/-) per night.
Thanda, which markets itself as a private resort, is located within the Shungi Mbili Island Marine Reserve near Mafia Island, off the Indian Ocean – one of 15 marine parks overseen by the state-run Marines Parks and Reserves Unit (MPRU).
MPRU says on its website that a marine reserve is a "protected area that is strictly set aside to protect biodiversity, and also is always a small area where human residence is not allowed."
According to the unit, the use of resources and impacts on marine reserves are strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation areas.
"Such protected areas can serve as indispensable reference areas for scientific research and monitoring," it says.
But operators of the Thanda Island resort claim that they purchased the island from the Tanzanian government in 2005/06.
According to an article published last week in Spear's, a British magazine for affluent individuals, the transaction followed “a lengthy engagement with the (Tanzanian) authorities.”
The Swedish couple then developed the island into “what it today calls their own discreet, sumptuous retreat and private playground," the article says.
The Olofssons are said to have picked the island after scouring Seychelles, Madagascar, and Mozambique for an ideal location to build a luxury resort.
Forbes magazine, in an article published in August last year, also said Swedish investors had bought the island from the Tanzanian government.
To quote the Forbes magazine report: "The Olofssons set out to acquire a private-island counterpart to their safari lodge (in South Africa), and settled on one in the Shungi Mbili Island Marine Reserve in southern Tanzania."
"After years of negotiation and sustainability-minded construction, it was rechristened Thanda Island and welcomed its first paying guests in August (2016)."
According to Forbes, the Tanzanian government allowed the Swedish couple to buy the island after being given guarantees that it would attract many tourists.
"The Olofssons envisioned the island as a private paradise where they could escape with their three children and eight grandchildren. But the Tanzanian government wouldn't let them buy it unless it would contribute to tourism in the country and protect marine wildlife," the report said. "The couple complied but remained committed to building a private family home."
Asked to comment on the reports, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Major General Gaudence Milanzi, told The Guardian that he was not aware of any such acquisition of a whole private island by foreign investors.
“This is the first I am hearing about the existence of such an island ... I would have known about it," Milanzi said. He added that he would be in a position to respond in more detail after consulting other authorities including the Tanzania Investment Centre (TIC) and the MPRU, which is under the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock Development and Fisheries.
The Thanda Island property, which has five bedrooms and rents in its entirety for $10,000 a night (for up to ten people), is roughly 20 acres ringed by coral reefs in protected waters teeming with sea life, including whale sharks, dolphins, and five species of turtles.
In June last year, the question of the island’s reported sale to foreign investors was raised in parliament with the government issuing a denial.
Responding to the query raised by Ali Salim Khamis, member of parliament for Mwanakwerekwe constituency in Zanzibar (CUF), the deputy minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Ramo Makani, asserted that the island was still a part of the Shungi Mbili Island Marine Reserve under MPRU supervision, and had not been sold by the government into private hands.
The deputy minister said the government had allowed Thanda Tanzania Limited to build a tourist hotel on the island after the company followed all required procedures.
Thanda Island describes itself as "one of the world’s most exclusive island getaways," and has been voted the World's Leading Exclusive Private Island by the 2016 World Travel Awards.
The tourist resort claims on its website that it is "situated in its own marine reserve" and calls itself a "private island."
By definition, a private island is a disconnected body of land wholly owned by a single private citizen or corporation.