Tanzania: A modernizing land of natural wonder and opportunity

Evening food markets at Stone Town, Zanzibar.

Story highlights

  • Tanzania is famous for its natural beauty and cultural heritage
  • Economic growth has been steady in recent years but poverty remains a sticking point

CNN's On the Road series brings you a greater insight into countries around the world. This time we travel to Tanzania to explore the places, the people and the passions unique to this African nation.

(CNN)It's far from being the most affluent country in the world, but what Tanzania lacks in financial power it makes up for in natural beauty.

Buffalo and Maasai warriors roam the wilds of the Serengeti, elephants guard the steppes of mount Kilimanjaro -- Africa's highest mountain -- and crystal-clear azure waters skirt the tropical coastline stretching out towards the country's archipelago, Zanzibar.
    Situated below the horn of Africa, and straddling Africa's east coast, Tanzania is bordered by Uganda and Kenya to the north, Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo to the west; Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique lay to the south. Tanzania's political stability means that it attracts not only tourists, but economic immigrants and refugees, too.
    Maasai people at the foot of El-Donyo Lengai, where tourism is the main source of income.
    Since the 1990s, refugees have arrived from neighboring Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to UNHCR, Tanzania received more than 100,000 Burundians between April 1 and October 9, as people fled from political unrest.

    An influx of foreigners

    The influence of foreign communities is a common theme throughout the history of the Tanzanian mainland and Zanzibar.
    Used as a coastal trading hub for hundreds of years by Arabs from what is now Oman, Islamic culture has been a part of everyday life in Zanzibar and the Tanzanian mainland since the 8th century.
    European influence came initially from Portuguese explorers who took control of the area in the 15th century, followed by French settlers using the coastal town of Kilwa as a port for slave trade from 1776. German and British colonialists took control of the mainland and Zanzibar from the late 19th century, until both areas gained their independence in the 1960s and united as Tanzania in 1964.
    Since independence, China has been a consistent feature of foreign influence in Tanzania.
    From 1970 to 1975, China financed and helped build the 1,860 km TAZARA Railway from Dar es Salaam to Zambia. In 2012, work began on gas pipelines to connect Mtwara to Dar es Salaam funded by a $1.2 billion loan from Exim Bank of China. And in 2014, Chinese investment into Tanzania reached $4 billion. More than 500 Chinese companies have invested in Tanzania, creating 150,000 jobs, according to the Chinese embassy in Dar es Salaam.
    The Dar es Salaam port is undergoing a huge transformation.

    Modernizing the land of safari

    Investment in the country's infrastructure is essential in balancing the country's economy across the industrial sectors -- to increase wealth and depend less on imports. As a net importer of oil and net exporter of gold, the Tanzanian economy is exposed to fluctuations in commodity markets.
    GDP growth remains robust -- reaching 7.3% in 2013 and 7.0% in 2014 -- led by the construction, trade, agriculture and transport sectors. But the World Bank recognizes that challenges remain in "addressing infrastructure bottlenecks, improving the business environment, increasing agricultural productivity and value addition, improving service delivery to build a healthy and skilled workforce, and managing urbanization."
    These issues will have to be confronted if Tanzania is to continue to bring its population out of poverty and tackle inequality between urban and rural communities.
    In 2013, 28% of the population lived below the World Bank poverty line -- down from 34% in 2007. And despite this improvement, gross national income per capita remained at $930 in 2014 -- almost half the average for sub-Saharan Africa.
    The World Bank attests that despite economic progress in Tanzania, more remains to be done: "From 2007 to 2013 there were improvements in living conditions, access to basic education, health and nutrition and, labor force participation in non-agriculture employment. Nevertheless, these benefits were not distributed equitably. Inequality has increased between urban and rural population and approximately 12 million Tanzanians are still living in poverty."

    Democracy and wealth

    This month the country goes to the polls in what observers describe as a close election.
    As Tanzania's political democracy strengthens, the country also looks set to take further advantage of its natural resources. In March 2015, an eighth discovery of natural gas was made off the Tanzanian coast.
    The World Bank estimates that the country sits on about 15 trillion cubic feet of reserves, valued at $150 billion or six times the country's GDP based on 2012 prices.