Getting to meet someone you always wanted to but never thought possible is pure delight. Hasan al Lawati strays into a pleasant surprise in Stone Town.
Three years ago when I just started my journalism career, I met Garry Friend at a business event. Then the general manager of Grand Hyatt Muscat, Friend introduced me to a group of influential people and helped me in covering a major B2B (Back to Business) event.
Friend is a soft-spoken, free-handed and quick-witted man. He was well known in the hospitality sector in the region.
I wanted to meet him later to thank him, but he was gone by then.
I never had the chance to say goodbye to him, until last week in Zanzibar.
I was staying at Park Hyatt Zanzibar in Stone Town when I met Julia Gimadyeva, the director of sales of the hotel. She asked me if I would like to interview their general manager.
I did not see any reason to do the interview until she mentioned his name. Garry Friend is the general manager of Park Hyatt Zanzibar, and he was on his way to the hotel.
“Oh destiny,” I thought.
Again, after three years, I interviewed Garry Friend, but on a different continent. The first thing I asked was: “Do you miss Oman?”
“Yes, especially the Opera House,” he said. Friend was known to be a regular at the Royal Opera House Muscat.
Asked about the difference between Oman and Zanzibar when it came to tourism, he said: “There is a really big difference between Oman and Zanzibar. You really can’t compare them. Oman is a big city, it is like New York compared to Zanzibar which is very isolated. The only deluxe hotel in Stone Town is Park Hyatt and there is no other international branded luxury hotel here.
“Muscat is really progressive, you have the Opera House, luxury and business hotels and many international events take place there while Zanzibar, as they say in Egypt, is very ‘baladi’.
“It is a developing third world country where many of its people survive on handouts and many of them live below the poverty line.”
But Zanzibar is well recognised as one of the safest areas in Africa. “Zanzibar is very safe even compared to Dar Es Salaam. Women can walk at night here,” Friend said.
In Zanzibar, there are no private beaches by law. A fact that made me ask Friend about how beneficial this rule could be to tourism.
“In most parts of the world, you can’t have private beaches. Even in Australia where I am from, no hotels or houses are allowed to have private beaches. We are lucky here because local people use the beach next to our hotel to play football and do yoga in the morning,” he said.
Commenting on the law, Friend said: “It is very good. I am very happy about this and hope they stick to that. Everybody should be free to use the beaches.”
To me, Zanzibar felt different. It is not your regular island escape. It is nothing like Hawaii or the Maldives.
“When you come to Zanzibar, you want to feel African culture and the history of Omani and Portuguese design and cultural influence,” said Friend “..but when if you come to Stone Town, you can really feel the richness of culture and its unexplored history.”
While Friend said Zanzibar “is way more touristic than Oman” he explained that Oman is a lot more successful financially.
“Although the labour is much cheaper here, Zanzibar is not seen as a high-end location,” he said.
Many people here are surviving on $150 a month, according to Friend.
Friend has visited Oman three times since he left it three years ago.
“The first thing I miss about Muscat is shopping, you cannot buy anything brand new here, I miss the Opera House and the fabulous restaurants,” he said.
“Plus, Muscat is closer to Europe and other international destinations and Omanis are better educated and enjoy better medical care. You are miles away,” he added.
Friend is managing two hotels in Tanzania: one in its mainland in Dar Es Salaam and the other is Zanzibar island.
“I think Omanis will enjoy it. The place here is designed to walk around, it is a safe place where women can walk safely at night. Oman Air, flydubai and Qatar Airways fly daily to Zanzibar.” Friend has a very interesting career. He has spent 27 years managing the Hyatt brand. From Australia to Greece, Jordan and Egypt, where he spent more than six years, he moved to South Africa, Doha and Muscat, before landing in Zanzibar.
Among his friends, he is known to be an avid volunteer and major contributor to local communities.
He is also known for his trust-based policy. “If you are managing people, you have to trust them. I think being able to trust people is very important. Staff need to grow and make decisions and also learn to be friendly and learn from their mistakes,” he said.
Park Hyatt Hotel currently funds a home for the elderly and sponsors a football team in Zanzibar. It also promotes artists by giving them free space in the hotel to display their works.
“We work to give something back to the community,” Friend said, adding that 95 per cent of the hotel staff are locals.
Following the interview, Garry Friend introduced me to Othman, a 26-year-old painter. Othman is one the very common Arabic names on the island.
He generously took me on a short tour to see art workshops in
“Since hotels started opening in Zanzibar, many artists found opportunities to sell painting to the tourists,” he said, adding that there are many full-time painters in Zanzibar.”
“We get to display our work to tourists. The Americans are the best buyers. We make good sales during holiday seasons,” he said.
The two gentlemen, Friend and Othman, confidently show us how the hospitality industry can contribute to the development of countries and curb unemployment. ν