A woman reclines on a bed of colourful cushions. The picture-perfect ocean in front of her is framed by a private cabana and the twinkling horizon is bathed in orange hues. The Instagram caption reads: "Just taking in all the views. Cannot wait to be back in the Maldives in two weeks."
This is one beautifully edited post in a feed filled with hundreds of them. But on this influencer's Instagram account, which has more than 100,000 followers, you can rest assured that you won't find any bikini-clad beach shots or beverage-by-the-pool selfies. That's because
@sukainarajabali is a halal traveller and part of one of the fastest-growing tourism sectors in the world.
Since 2016, the number of Muslim travellers worldwide has grown by almost 30 per cent, according to a study by Mastercard and Crescent Rating, a research company that monitors halal-friendly travel. Spending by Muslim holidaymakers is predicted to reach $220 billion (Dh808.09bn) by next year. It's a demographic that is well-educated, upwardly mobile and young – the global average age of residents in Muslim countries is 22.
So, it's perhaps no surprise that halal travel is becoming a booming sector around the world and on social media.
A changing world
It hasn’t always been this way, though. For Nabeel Shariff, founder of Serendipity Travel – one of the first specialised halal travel agencies in the UK – the Muslim travel demographic has shifted hugely. “Back in 2009, when we decided to begin our journey into halal-friendly travel, we didn’t expect it to be as developed, debated and as competitive as it is a decade on,” he says.
Back then, travel for many, but by no means all, Muslims meant going "home" (to the country their parents or grandparents came from), going on pilgrimage or travelling to the few destinations where there was already an established halal travel scene. As the market has matured, "the niche label often associated with halal travel is nearing its final days", says Shariff. While it may no longer be niche, it is certainly diverse. Yes, some Muslim travellers seek strict alcohol-free resorts, female-only swimming pools and a selection of itineraries with built-in break times for the five daily prayers. But that's not for everyone. "I don't believe there is a one-size-fits-all when it comes to halal travel," says Shariff. "The majority of Muslim travellers share common values when it comes to consumption, but even then there are varying degrees, with some tourists comfortable with verbal assurances and other holidaymakers keen to see certification of any halal services."
Having helped to bridge the gap between Muslim travellers and destinations for more than nine years, Shariff's latest initiative wants to take this one step further. Rihaala.com, the first online booking platform dedicated to Muslim travellers, helps users personalise a journey that works for them rather than catering to the demographic en masse. "Rihaala has all the common attributes of an online booking platform, like price competitiveness and customer support, but we also give travellers the chance to book flights, hotels, transfers and excursions that are dedicated to being halal-friendly," he says. "People can use the site to filter by hotels that have a private swimming pool, for example, or they can use it just to find inspiration."
In a demographic where family, word of mouth and community play a major role, Rihaala encourages peer-to-peer sharing. "The Rihaala blog and community discussions help travellers find answers to specific questions they might not be able to find out easily elsewhere, such as: 'Can I wear a burkini at this hotel?'" says Shariff. There's also a wall of inspiration, created solely from user-generated content. "Using some pretty awesome artificial intelligence, we're able to create a library from the social platforms of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
This refreshes with new content every day, showcasing the travel experiences of our customers’ peers and from some of the top halal influencers.”
Only one look at this wall shows the diversity of Muslim travellers today.
Space for everyone
That's something Sukaina Rajabali found lacking on Instagram and eventually led to her launching @shetravelsmodestly, a repost Instagram account. "I came across so many beautiful repost accounts, but none would show gorgeous, modestly dressed women. It was all about showing skin while being on a beach – and I wanted to show people that you can still travel, but you can do so modestly," the influencer, who lives in Dubai, says.
The rise of female solo travel is another noticeable change in the halal travel demographic, and Rajabali is particularly keen to connect with these women, who are not necessarily seeking the same things as traditional Muslim travellers. "Women are becoming more educated, marrying later in life, getting better jobs and have more disposable income, and I want to encourage them to travel
– be it going parasailing in Mauritius, diving in the Maldives, swimming with turtles in Zanzibar, hiking in Petra or going arctic swimming in Finland," she says. "Just because you cover up, that should not stop you from travelling. You can still hold on to your modesty, culture and religion and explore the world – you can take risks without being risque."
As halal travel begins to move away from being seen purely as a religious-driven sector, Rajabali has seen shifts in the market. "I'm noticing little changes that help make Muslim travellers feel comfortable and catered to. I recently arrived at a hotel on a tropical island and, even there, I had a prayer mat in my hotel room," she says.
Double the adventure
For British couple Joao and Aaliyah Domingos, travelling in a way that maintains their faith is a key focus. Having left London for Hong Kong shortly after they were married, the pair now go by the handle @dos_domingos and make interactive vlogs on YouTube showing off their world travels. Alongside components they deem fundamental to halal travel, such as "praying on time, eating halal food and engaging in Muslim-friendly activities", the pair share a passion for adventure. Their channel is filled with videos of them on trips – from cycling in Vietnam to tucking into halal dim sum in Hong Kong or hitting up a theme park in Kuala Lumpur. The videos also provide Muslim-specific tips for those seeking adventure, such as where to find halal street food or how to continue exploring the world while fasting during Ramadan.
As a young, interracial couple, the pair are helping to break down outdated cultural stereotypes of Muslim travellers. "Being interracial lets us appeal to a wider audience and it promotes oneness, celebrates differences and shows unity and harmony between humans. Our channel also allows us to promote to our followers' lifestyle design – the notion of following your dreams and living life on your own terms."
Travelling on your own terms is something that's growing in importance to Muslim holidaymakers, we're told. Many of those from the younger generation are intent on travelling sustainably or seeking new experiences, while others are keen to stick to traditional religious-focused pilgrimages.
Rajabali says social media has helped fuel this change. “The travelling population in general, including Muslims, are now after meaningful experiences, doing something unusual, something that stands out, building memories rather than gathering things. The age of Instagram travel is upon us – more and more people are using social media to inspire their next destination or trip.”
And it's the countries, hotels and resorts taking note of what Muslim tourists now need and want that will benefit from one of the biggest-spending demographic groups in tourism. "You see more Muslim travellers frequenting Instagram-friendly spots like the Greek islands of Santorini, for example," says Rajabali.
Shariff notes that destinations in the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia continue to lead the way for Muslim travellers booking through Serendipity Travel, but agrees new countries are moving into focus. "South Africa has the infrastructure and opportunity to offer Muslim travellers the convenience they need, as well as being an established destination. Another destination that can offer Muslim travellers an incredible experience is India. The vast country has so much to offer and some spectacular places to stay."
The extent to which a trip is halal-friendly is something that all Muslim tourists should be able to decide for themselves. For Shariff, it's all about the experiences and giving guests options. "The halal benefits or the Muslim-friendly offerings are simply information that we provide for people so they can make an informed choice and fall back in love with travel."