A dedicated "halal cruise" is the latest in a stream of tourism offerings being marketed directly towards Muslim travellers, as global companies reposition themselves to cater to the growth market.
The cruise, touted as the first of its kind in Turkey without alcohol, pork products or gambling services on board, is set to sail next month, and follows a swath of travel apps, websites, hotels, airlines and Muslim-friendly guides clamouring to cater to the increasing number of tourists looking for a thoughtful holiday experience.
“It will be a cultural and historic tour that promises an atmosphere of social networking,” Kemal Gunay, the general manager of the host company Fusion Tour, said in the Turkish media last week.
With the world’s Muslim population expected to increase from 1.6 billion to 2.2 billion by 2030, projections suggest halal travel will outpace the growth of any other tourism sector within the next four years. According to the MasterCard-CrescentRating Global Muslim Travel Index (GMTI) 2015, while the sector was worth US$145 billion (Dh532.6bn) last year, it’s expected to grow to $200bn by 2020.
“It’s becoming a hugely competitive market now as tourism bodies realise the potential of attracting this high-spending market,” says Abu Dhabi-based event director Andy Buchanan, who in October will assist the UAE’s capital in hosting the World Halal Travel Summit – an event that is being promoted as “the largest B2B (business-to-business) gathering of global halal-travel specialists ever assembled”.
“Succeeding in halal travel is a very high priority for Abu Dhabi – almost every Abu Dhabi stakeholder is involved,” adds Buchanan.
So what is halal tourism? Essentially, it involves a process of taking into account the needs of the Muslim traveller, including halal food, prayer facilities and private areas for men and women. It’s a subcategory of tourism geared towards families who abide by rules of Islam.
Its growth is being driven by several factors, according to Fazal Bahardeen, the chief executive of CrescentRating – a Singapore-based halal-tourism online platform that’s developed into an authority on the sector with the only globally recognised rating system. An increasing Muslim population, an increasing Muslim middle class with disposable income and more destinations around the world realising the opportunities to service this niche market are all contributing.
“The UAE is one of the top outbound markets,” Bahardeen says. “The UAE’s outbound Muslim travellers are becoming more and more aware of Muslim-friendly options, and there is a growing demand for that.”
Bahardeen says feedback from the broader global Muslim community has been good, but there’s always room for improvement.
“More and more Muslims are now very keen to explore new destinations. However, they still feel some of their requirements are not adequately met in many destinations.”
Chrisa Chatzisavva is a businesswoman hoping to help change that. She’s the driving force behind the halal-tourism website Muslim Break (www.muslimbreak.com), which aims to “offer Muslims the opportunity to have their dream holiday without feeling uncomfortable”.
“Our offering is 100 per cent tailored to Muslim travellers’ needs and lifestyles. They don’t need to doubt whether they’ll be able to find halal food, prayer rooms or privacy,” Chatzisavva says.
The site, which was launched five months ago, offers reviews and advice on holidays that it tailors to the clients’ needs. The idea, says the marketing professional, came about while she was holidaying in Greece with her family five years ago.
“I noticed we were having constantly increasing inbound tourism from Morocco and Algeria, but that halal-tourism infrastructure was non-existent. So many Muslim tourists were getting frustrated,” says Chatzisavva.
Her vision was to “make the modern Muslim traveller a true citizen of the world and bridge the gap between Islam and other traditions”.
Chatzisavva's site, which is run out of London, is one of many on the market with the same aim. Others include Halal Booking (www.halalbooking.com), CrescentRating's HalalTrip (www.halaltrip.com) and the Muslim Travel Warehouse (www.muslimtravelwarehouse.com).
Halal Booking, not unlike Muslim Break, “provides holiday packages that allow you to relax, soak up the sun and enjoy sandy beaches and crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean Sea, without compromising the values of your beliefs”.
According to the website: “All activities are geared towards maintaining the values and modesty of Muslims.”
While Muslim-friendly travel websites have been steadily increasing with demand, hotels all over the world are also recognising the increased value in tailoring their services to religious travellers, making adjustments to their services to take into account the needs of this group. Across Europe, hotels are now providing Arabic-speaking staff, Arabic television channels and rooms with the qibla, which shows the direction of Mecca, along with prayer mats and halal food options. Some are avoiding alcohol and steering clear of having nightclubs on site, and during Ramadan and Eid, even generate special menus.
According to the GMTI 2015, the world’s most halal-friendly destinations are Malaysia, followed by Turkey and the UAE, and it’s easy to see why these countries rate highly – they cater to religious travellers better than any others. Other countries are now specifically vying for this tourist market, too.
“During the last 18 months, we have seen awareness and interest growing among destinations and service providers,” says Bahardeen. “There are now CrescentRated entities in more than 50 countries.”
Last month, the Tourism Authority of Thailand joined the movement, launching its first smartphone app designed to help Muslim visitors locate mosques, halal restaurants and hotels, shopping centres with prayer rooms and other facilities of cultural importance in the country.
“We hope it will be useful to the many Muslim visitors,” says Juthaporn Rerngronasa, the acting governor of the Thai tourism body. “The Muslim population worldwide is about 1.6 billion, representing 23 per cent of the total global population. Thailand has great potential to serve this market.”
Other apps to have made their way on to the market this year include HalalTrip, an extension of the website of the same name. The app, which has been available since January, is more food-related and helps users locate and share new halal food spots.
The HalalTrip app was developed because of a surge in restaurants and hotels expressing a desire to become halal-certified.
“We want to make it easier and more fun for people to plan trips, and discover very important things that influence their travelling decisions, such as places to eat along their journey,” says Bahardeen, whose company also has an in-flight prayer calculator app that offers users prayer times and qibla directions. “They can then share this with their network and other travellers.”
He believes the app will help drive halal tourism. “Halal food is one of the most important aspects for Muslim travellers, and we have seen a huge increase in the industry from restaurants wanting to become halal and more Muslim-friendly.
“Muslims, just like the general population, love to discover new places to eat and share their experiences. This food feature will allow Muslims to share their experiences and track their journey,” he says, adding that earlier this week CrescentRating released the world’s first glossary of halal travel, which promotes accurate and consistent use of halal terms and is available online.
So what do Muslim travellers think of all this? Sanila Basim of Abu Dhabi says she prefers religiously friendly resorts and when she travels makes a point of ensuring wherever she stays offers halal food.
“I don’t book my trips online, but I’ve heard of the Muslim-friendly websites, and they are pretty popular among my peers, who prefer a hassle-free trip especially when they are travelling with kids,” she says. “I think it would be great if more popular tourist spots were Islam-friendly so we can have easy access to prayer rooms and mosques, halal food and if local residents respect our headscarf and attire.”
The finance specialist says that while the world is becoming more aware of the value of the Muslim traveller to the economy, she recently travelled to Europe and was told it would be better to remove her headscarf and be more modern in how she dressed. “Well, I totally disagree with that,” she says.
Satwat Irfan, a married mum-of-one also from Abu Dhabi, says she greatly appreciates the interest global tourism operators are taking in Muslim travellers.
“I really prefer to use Muslim-friendly sites and apps – it’s good not to have to think about religious chores when travelling. I love to travel without any fear of missing my prayers.”
With the Muslim travel market comprising 11.6 per cent of global travel expenditure, the Abu Dhabi Government is striving to become a world leader in the field.
“Our ambition is to become a leader in the global halal-tourism market and gain a greater share of the global market,” Sultan Al Dhaheri, the acting executive director of tourism at Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority, told media a few months ago.
And with the capital’s tourism body having hosted its first halal-tourism workshop earlier this year, October’s World Halal Travel Summit, at Adnec from October 19 to 21, is sure to attract a great deal of interest from all over the world.
Where to go
Need inspiration for your next holiday? CrescentRating and MasterCard joined forces to identify the top destinations for Muslim travellers, based on factors such as safety, halal dining, accommodation, airport services, access to prayer rooms, ease of communication and family-friendly options. They divided the lists into OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) and non-OIC countries.
Top 10 OIC holiday destinations
Malaysia receives the thumbs up because of its safe travel environment, dining and accommodation options, access to prayer rooms, ease of communication, opportunities for families and understanding of Muslim travel needs. It’s the second-most-visited destination by Muslim travellers.
Turkey offers easy access to prayer rooms, a safe travel environment and good halal dining options, not to mention great cultural attractions. It also attracts a high volume of Muslim visitors.
It’s no surprise that the UAE, with its heavy tourism focus, rates highly. It receives the best possible rating for safety and access to prayer facilities, and also ranks highly for dining options and ease of communication.
4. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia attracts the highest number of Muslim travellers – 10.2 million in 2014. While Umrah and Haj contribute significantly to these numbers, the country also scores highly when it comes to ease of travel for Muslims.
With a top rating for its safe travel environment, easy prayer room access and good airport facilities, Qatar also scores highly on its halal dining options.
Top 10 non-OIC destinations
The only non-Muslim country to feature in the overall top 10 ratings, Singapore offers a safe travel environment with good halal dining options and access to prayer rooms.
Airport services and awareness of Muslim travel needs give Thailand extra points when it comes to halal travel.
3. United Kingdom
The UK is favoured because of its safe travel environment and ease of communication, and is considered a top family-friendly destination.
4. South Africa
In addition to great scenery and wildlife, South Africa offers a safe travel environment for Muslims.
Another great family destination, France also offers Muslim visitors a safe travel environment and world-famous attractions.
7. Hong Kong
8. United States