Matt Saus is definitely one who cannot be labelled as a traditional hotelier, and people often wonder how a British Zimbabwean who was privately educated in the very best public schools of England and who had the ideal profile to become a successful banker or lawyer ended up investing and making a life on the remote island of Pemba on the East coast of Africa.
Considered one of the most influential hoteliers in promoting sustainable tourism in the travel world, Matt and his charming Swedish wife, Carina, have made Tanzania their home and curated a success story out of both The Manta Resort and the Kwanini foundation.
The latest pandemic has, by no means, halted their thirst to develop new projects in this remote part of the world. We sat down with Matt to hear all about how he ended up on Pemba Island, the resort’s recent refurbishment and the importance of the Kwanini project.
Tell us your story, Matt. How did a British Zimbabwean public schoolboy married to a Swede end up investing and making a life on a remote East African island?
In 2005, with most of our history and roots in Africa, it was natural for Carina, my other half and I, to pursue and discover the perfect location for a new project. On return to Sweden from living in Australia, I was fascinated with what was originally a piece of installation art and the brainchild of my partner Mikael Genberg, an underwater room. And so it began, the search for the ideal location for this experience. This led me to meeting my other partners Micael and Tina Edler.
After an extensive search with a very stringent set of conditions, we found ourselves on Pemba Island, Zanzibar, an island steeped in true Swahili tradition and green fields. Unexploited by tourism and the trappings of the outside world, Pemba has all that an island paradise can offer. A real place, real people, and a real future.
This is when the question ‘why?’ began to emerge as the most important one to answer. Why Pemba, why invest in tourism on Pemba, why the marine environment and the delicate fabric of its culture was so important to its future?
I just knew instantly I could make a difference.
Rustic luxury and sustainability in an authentic environment seem to describe The Manta Resort. Would you agree with this? Tell us more?
I prefer the description as real, over any other. A real Indian ocean island, real people with all their hopes and traditional ways of life, a real marine environment in all its complexity. This all leading to a real reason to safeguard its future. The Manta Resort embodies and promotes this all.
Can you tell us how the resort fits in this new post covid era where experiences seem to be what luxury is now all about for many travellers?
We have always believed that feeding the soul with space and nature is what luxury is all about. Here we go again with the word real. I believe we all know something to be real or genuine when we meet it. Our experiences are all centred around nature and people in a remote part of the world, far from the madding crowds.
It is often the case that a guest coming to The Manta Resort has first and foremost chosen a destination (Pemba Island). What would be the main factors influencing their choice?
The answer to this question again lies in the fact that Pemba is still unexploited with many parts untouched by the modern world.
The Manta Resort has a completely different approach in terms of management structure compared to a traditional hotel. How does it operate, and has it been a success story up to now?
For us as a group of people, the traditional hierarchies of a hotel business are not our focus. Everyone is involved with everything and the fact that I don’t like the top-down approach to management has something to do with it I suppose. Empathy and communication with respect and clarity are far more important and effective tools for us to deliver our product.
You did a full refurbishment of the property in 2020/2021. Was it planned or did you just use the pandemic as an opportunity instead of a hindrance?
Let us say that we decided to turn a negative situation where we had no control to a positive one. And we are most happy with the end result after 14 months where the resort went through a full refurb.
You are, through the resort, very involved in the community and all the high-profile political figures of the country see you as a pioneer. Is it something that just happened naturally?
As Jacque Yves Cousteau, the most famous of ocean explorers once said: “The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope”. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: ‘We are all in the same boat’.
Pemba is still unexploited, but the tipping point is near, and the future of the island depends heavily on the impact that tourism will have. Tourism has only just begun influencing change on a social level here on Pemba Island. Through the exposure of the underwater room project, we have people’s attention and have been able to communicate the culture of responsible, sustainable tourism and what it means to this very traditional Muslim Swahili culture.
By sharing our culture, we call ‘kwanini’, meaning ‘why’ in Swahili, the predominant language in East Africa, through work with the local communities and workshops with the government and all stakeholders in the industry, we have articulated a vision for the future of Pemba and found common belief in this pursuit. It has brought everyone together and is now the driving force for our work, from the President, Vice Presidents and the Minister of Tourism through to all involved in education, health, environment, land, investors and local communities.
When discussing the future, we always pose the simple question, ‘Why do we want tourism on Pemba Island?’. You can imagine what transpires following this question and have held three workshops, the latest being last October 2014, based on the resounding success of the last two.
The workshop/seminar is called ‘Kwanini Utalii Kwa Wote’ which translated means ‘Why Tourism For All’. This has the potential of securing a brighter future for the whole region. It is now understood that tourism doesn’t have to break apart the delicate fabric of society here on Pemba Island. The underwater room was even used as an icon for the 50th Anniversary of independence for the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar with the Vice President making a speech from the resort while officially inaugurating the underwater room.
Tell us more about the KWANINI Foundation, which seems to be a project which is very close to your heart.
The underwater room has created resounding awareness concerning the plight of the coral reefs around Pemba Island. These reefs are a vital part of the welfare to all that live on the island. Now with the media spotlight on the concept and the fascination of all the local inhabitants we have managed to convince the Minister of Fisheries, The Pemba Channel Conservation Area management, all the local fishermen and subsequent fisher committees that the reefs need protecting.
A small no netting conservation area was agreed upon in 2012 and implemented on the arrival of the underwater room in October 2013. The aim of this conservation area is to firstly prevent the pulling of nets over the coral reefs resulting in their destruction and also to allow the juveniles of over 200 species to grow and reproduce. This has been a major success in the fact that the conservation area is now a breeding ground that has proven results.
We need meaning to what we do, so a group of people coming together to do something is one thing; but it is a lot more powerful if they all find true meaning in what they’re doing, if they all share the reason in what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. So that’s really the essence of kwanini, it’s about people working together.
Address: Psv-zanzibar estate, Tanzania
Phone: +255 776 718 852
All imagery supplied by The Manta Resort