The Passion Project in Paradise
A story by Rachel Warrilow

When Andre Niznik and his family discovered the wild beauty of Paje Beach on the African island of Zanzibar, he was inspired to do more than take photographs for posterity. Entranced by the warm waters of its turquoise lagoon and the deserted palm-tree-lined beach, Niznik began to lay the foundations for a project that has evolved into an exclusive boutique resort that remains a peaceful haven.

Working with his wife, Katarzyna Kuzminska, the interior designer, and his daughter, Natalia, co-owner and sales director, Niznik created Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa, now in its seventh year with a 160-strong team committed to excellence. We caught up with Natalia Niznik, who shared the story behind the family adventure that has blossomed into a dream destination on the tropical island off the coast of Tanzania.

How does an ex-Google executive get involved in a Zanzibari hospitality adventure like White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa?

It wasn’t really planned; I come from tech, not hospitality. My father, my family and I went on holiday to Zanzibar in 2011 after we did Kilimanjaro and a bit of safari followed by three days on the island. My dad fell absolutely in love with Zanzibar and Paje beach—I mean, we all did—but he really fell in love with the idea of building a house there. So he started toying with this project, figuring out how his vision could look. At the time, I wanted to change careers from a big corporation to something different. Never in a million years did I think we would end up building a luxury hotel together! But it just happened. Before the construction began, I went out to stay in Zanzibar for a couple of months to help start the business from a brand, marketing and operations perspective. So I got involved in this hospitality adventure through my dad, who is not from that world either—he’s also from tech. It was a huge challenge and we have learned a lot over the past eleven years.
What were the major challenges and hurdles when building this beautiful beach retreat on the shores of the Indian Ocean? How long did it take?

Not coming from the hospitality industry, it was a very ambitious project. Confronting the realities of what it means to do luxury in Africa, we had to learn a lot. We definitely had help from professionals, from partners and consultants, for example. But really, it happened quite organically because it’s a passion project. I would say it’s self-made because we had to make all the decisions and do a lot of hands-on tasks ourselves. There were many challenges and hurdles, from the procedures and licences to foreign investment. We had to figure out so many things in terms of the infrastructure and building work. At the time, we couldn’t just pop to a hardware store if we were missing nails or a chainsaw! So we had to import everything, which could take three months to arrive. The weather also affected our progress because the humidity and salt from the ocean caused our tools to rust. The construction process took around two and a half years, although we expected it to take six months. 

You must have some entertaining anecdotes. Let's hear them!

[Laughs] During the construction phase, we had this huge piece of timber and we desperately needed these long nails to finish the job, but there was no hardware shop. We searched everywhere for these nails. In the end, one of the cooks said he knew someone who might have some. After searching high and low, his cousin ended up helping us. It really was like that: someone knowing someone who had something. We were lucky that the Zanzibari community is so welcoming.

ZWS started as a personal holiday home: how has this influenced the development of the property? How would you describe the DNA of Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa?

My father had been actively looking for somewhere to build a home for over ten years, so Paje Beach was an amazing discovery. The original plan was to build a house and a place to rent out. But as my dad visited the island, he realised the accommodation he was looking for as a client—somewhere natural, boutique and beachfront with AC—didn’t exist. So the development of the property didn’t come from a commercial perspective. The first thought wasn’t how many bungalows we could fit on this piece of land. He wanted to create his dream house and then maybe a couple more. We ended up building 11 villas with private pools. Then the restaurant, the spa, and the kitesurfing centre—and that’s how we transitioned into a resort. The fact that ZWS started as a personal home is evident in the architecture: it is very much my father and his wife’s dream house. This is replicated in each villa, which has a large private pool, and 1500 square metres of private land surrounded by lush gardens. We’ve always believed that luxury is space: the ability to watch the sunrise with your loved ones in a special place away from the crowds. The DNA of ZWS is very much this home-away-from-home eco-chic retreat because it is inspired by nature and the local community that has welcomed us. All the villas are decorated with colours and textures that help the resort blend into the landscape where there are lots of plants and trees. There is a real sense of peace and tranquillity—like a luxurious castaway island. Since 2011, we have invested in renewable energy sources to respect the space we inhabit. We are partially powered by wind turbines, solar panels and solar water heaters. We also developed our own vegetable, fruit and herb garden as well as a carpentry workshop where we produce wooden furniture and carvings. Energy and waste management are also important dimensions within our operations and we work closely with local partners on various community and conservation initiatives.
Andre Niznik & Katarzyna Kuzminska & Natalia Niznik
What are the most unique experiences that guests can enjoy on and off-site?

Because we are facing east, we have the sunrise, so grabbing a transparent kayak and paddling out into the ocean when no one's around is an incredible experience. Kitesurfing is amazing here and it’s one of the top spots in the world. Off-site, I'd recommend soaking up the atmosphere and culture anywhere on the island because it's such a unique melting pot of Indian, Arabic and African cultures that transport you to another world. For example, Stonetown, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is fascinating. You won’t find anywhere like it in the Maldives, Seychelles or anywhere else. 

As an avid kitesurfer and co-founder of Zanzibar Kite Paradise, how would you say ZWS has a special appeal for kitesurfers?

My dad started kitesurfing around 15 years ago and he inspired us all to take up the sport. My two younger brothers kitesurf extremely well. In fact, one is semi-professional and the former champion of Ireland. ZWS started with kitesurfing because of its strategic location. Our beach faces an incredible turquoise lagoon with a coral reef two kilometres out that stops any waves. And as we are between two villages, we don’t have any crowds around us. The water is 27 degrees and there is only sand, no coral, no rocks, nothing. The eastern coast of Zanzibar is tidal, which means you can learn to kitesurf with the water at your knees—so it’s really safe. The wind is known as ‘side-shore’, which is the best wind for kitesurfing as it's stable. When I was 18, I tried the sport in Sicily. The water was deep and I couldn’t touch the seabed, which meant I struggled and didn’t enjoy it at all. But in Zanzibar, the conditions are perfect and safe. It’s hard to kitesurf anywhere else. 

You have been operating in Zanzibar for some years now. How has the destination developed and how do you see the island evolving?

Compared to when we arrived in 2011, there is now more infrastructure, such as paved roads, hospitals and medical centres. A beautiful new airport terminal opened this year. But despite this growth, there is still a genuine authenticity to Zanzibar that makes it an incredible place to visit. It is still wild in some areas; it truly has a soul. Tourism has created more jobs and opportunities to support local communities and build schools. If the island continues to develop, this should happen sustainably, with solutions around protecting the communities, the environment and the soul of Zanzibar. 

Which are your most important markets these days, in terms of guest arrivals? Is there a specific market that you're exploring for the future?

About 70 to 80% of our guests are European with 30% coming from France— we are part of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux and its only property in Tanzania. But the US market is showing great momentum and we're having more and more American guests. We are interested in exploring the Middle Eastern market as we are close to Dubai—around 5 hours by direct flight—so ZWS is the perfect destination for a long weekend or extended holiday. When we opened, many guests were looking for couples accommodation, whereas now we see more and more families—and Zanzibar White Sand is the right spot for them. We have lots of family-friendly activities and amenities, including a tennis court, playground, main pool and paddling pool for kids, a mini-farm and, of course, child-minding. Because each villa is a world of its own, with lots of space and privacy, we accommodate everyone from families to honeymooners.

What are your plans for the future? Any secret news that you can share with us?

It’s exciting because as we continue to grow we are always busy. This year, we have opened our world-class tennis court and we have just rebranded our spa, adding hammam rituals and a hair salon. Our goal is to continue to focus on our guests’ satisfaction and comfort. We are not planning on building more or creating a second property, but we want to grow vertically in terms of standards. We are also investing in our team’s training, education and improved housing. At the hotel, we have temporary and permanent housing and we are building new staff areas. In terms of sustainability, we already invest in renewable energy, produce our own drinking water, and the hotel is plastic-free, so we will continue to push ahead to get certified. Some more exciting news is that we are developing a ZWS app to make life simpler for guests. As we come from the tech world, it seemed like a logical progression: to improve communication about the hotel without compromising on the human touch.

Last but not least, what is the most important piece of advice you would share with someone who wants to build a hotel in Africa?

Be patient because it’s a process with hurdles. One thing that helped me was the support of other hoteliers, so don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for help. But it’s a wonderful adventure and our project continues to bring so much joy and excitement.
Rachel Warrilow
Rachel is a writer with a professional background in literature, travel and fashion. After growing up in the Middle East, Rachel has travelled extensively - living in Japan, Australia and the UK - seeking experiences that continue to shape her writing. Rachel currently lives in Mallorca, Spain.