Swedish entrepreneurs Dan and Christin Olofsson always wanted Thanda Island to be different. Back in 2016, when they started welcoming guests to the East African island they’d bought and built up over the previous decade, luxury travel was booming. Thanda was special, certainly, but there were lots of hyper-exclusive island destinations for people with means to choose from. Private chefs, a killer guest-to-staff ratio, isolated beaches, and the general run of the place—those were all easy enough to find. But surely, the Olofssons thought, there had to be more?
What the couple envisioned was an island retreat that was not just self-sustaining but also reparative, one that could perhaps even serve as a model for other islands looking to further the cause of conservation. “When we got here in 2006, we were devastated to see the degradation of the island,” says Thanda Group CEO Pierre Delvaux. “There was no preservation, no patrolling—just exploitation by local fishermen stripping the coral reef.” Along with the Olofssons, Delvaux worked to put conservation first, knowing that true luxury would follow.
Thanda Island is a 20-acre island 16 miles off the coast of Tanzania, surrounded by the Shungimbili Island Marine Reserve. Guests stay in a five-bedroom villa—in which all bedrooms have direct beach access—or in one of two two-bedroom beach bandas, a traditional type of bungalow, furnished with locally made pieces. The villa’s details are as over-the-top as you’d expect—a Steinway grand piano, a humidor, a collection of Hemingway books. But the accommodations also feel homey and beachy. What’s meant to be impressive isn’t what’s inside (although it is), but what’s outside.
Delvaux and his leadership team—including full-time resident marine biologist Rianne Laan, whose job involves keeping inventory of the Reserve’s marine species and overseeing a coral nursery—have spent the last decade rewilding Thanda Island, restoring the ecosystem on land and in the water. The island is powered entirely by solar energy, and the water it uses is purified through a desalination plant. But the marine efforts are what’s most worth noting: Some six years into the project of restoring the Reserve, marine life is thriving. Guests who go on a snorkel safari can now see whale sharks, turtles and dugongs, a cousin of the manatee.
“There was very little to see when we first got here,” says Delvaux. “Now, the turtles come back to nest, the coral reef is regenerated, the fisheries are full…. It’s a spectacular diving experience, just six years in.” The change has been so dramatic that the Tanzanian government has taken note, and Delvaux says that developers on the island of Zanzibar are using Thanda as a blueprint: If a tiny private island can significantly impact sea life and biodiversity in the Indian Ocean, imagine what country-wide efforts could do?
Tanzania never closed its borders during the pandemic, and Delvaux says that while business on the island slowed, it didn’t stop entirely. After all, there are few destinations safer than an island only you and your guests are inhabiting (especially if you have access to a private plane). To get there, Qatar Airways—the first airline in the world to receive the prestigious Skytrax 5-Star COVID-19 Airline Safety Rating, with measures that include testing unvaccinated crew every three days—is your best bet, with daily flights to Dar es Salaam from several U.S. and international cities. There, Thanda staff meet guests on the runway to transport them to the island—“bubble to bubble,” says Delvaux—via Thanda’s newly acquired helicopter. (Qatar also boasts Qsuite, featuring the industry’s first-ever double bed in business class and dine-on-demand access.)
But as more and more people are returning to travel abroad with pre-pandemic frequency, Delvaux has noticed, even among the island’s most luxury-focused travelers, a greater interest in conservation. Travelers are keenly aware that the planet is, indeed, fragile and that if they want to keep traveling, it’s important to pay attention. Of course, the island is glad to help educate them: Guests to Thanda interested in learning about marine conservation can embark on private diving sessions using gear made from recycled plastic bottles, go on nighttime walks to search for bioluminescence and take part in a whale shark citizen science program, collecting identification data on whale sharks for the purpose of tracking and protecting.
That’s not to say the island has relented on its commitment to a luxury experience. Thanda celebrated the reopening of international borders and the promise of more visitors to come with the acquisition of a private 82-foot yacht that sleeps eight. “Coming out of this stressful time period, when everyone was too petrified to leave their penthouses, there is an even greater emphasis on cultural and experiential trips,” says Delvaux. “If you can immerse yourself in Swahili culture, feel the Arabian trade winds while you sail, swim with whale sharks—which I think is one of the wonders of the world—and eat hyper-local cuisine, all of that adds up to a total unique experience you really can’t get on any other island in the world.”