With temperatures north of 40°C and long school breaks approaching, much of the nation is focused on the summer holidays. But for as long as one Muslim family in Abu Dhabi can remember, getting away from it all has not always been what it ought to be.
Just when they should be preparing to relax, kick back and enjoy their time together, they find themselves worrying instead about keeping their holiday halal. The primary concern, year in year out, is food. "We went to France three years ago," said Freya Jaffar, a mother of two. "We're a family of four, and we spent a whole week just eating vegetarian food. It took the buzz out of the holiday." Her husband, Mansoor, faces the same problem when travelling for business. "Like all of us, he just goes veggie. But you can't live on a piece of bread for 12 days, so sometimes he caves in and has a burger."
Mrs Jaffar wishes she could enjoy facilities such as the swimming pool when on holiday. But modesty concerns prevent her. "I wish there were separate facilities for women, like ladies' hours in the pool," she said. "I could go with my two children then. With the alcohol thing, it's pretty easy. We just avoid it altogether. But it really would be nice to use the hotel's facilities when we travel." An emerging market in halal tourism is capitalising on the rising number of Muslim travellers like the Jaffars. The global halal food market has been estimated at more than US$500 billion (Dh1.8 trillion), while demand for halal products tops $2 trillion. And the global population of Muslims continues to grow: a study last year from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in the US put the number at 1.57 billion, or 23 per cent of the world's population.
The Hong Kong Tourism Board is one body that has been boosting its halal tourism efforts by working closely with local restaurants. In the first four months of the year, the board reports the number of tourists from Muslim countries was up 13.4 per cent from the previous year. A growing number of airports have introduced prayer rooms, while most airlines offer their guests halal meal options. Several years ago, Les Rosiers in the French Alps became one of the first ski resorts to serve halal food. Walt Disney World Resort in the US is another destination striving to accommodate Muslim visitors.
"We do have a few kosher meal offerings that are halal certified," said Todd Heiden, public relations director at the resort in Orlando, Florida. "We also have a few items that can be specially ordered - lamb, beef, chicken and goat - but we must know where the guest will be dining so the chef can find out what items to bring in." Travellers can increasingly turn to the internet for help with planning. This month two halal travel-oriented websites formed a strategic alliance: Crescentrating.com, which rates travel and tourism services and hotels, and Irhal.com, an Islamic travel portal for outbound travellers from the Middle East that was launched in Dubai in April.
Crescentrating.com considers the specific needs of the halal-conscious traveller, such as prayer facilities, halal food, options for family-friendly facilities and friendliness of the environment, to issue ratings on a scale of one to seven. Irhal.com, an Arabic site, provides information on tourist attractions, shopping, prayer timings, mosque locations and halal restaurants in more than 70 cities.
In March Karim Saad, a 27-year-old Austrian-Egyptian, launched Halaltrip.com. The site features hotel reviews, a "mosque of the week" and posted a guide for people travelling to South Africa for the World Cup, directing Muslim travellers to an all-halal hotel in Cape Town. "There's a growing number of highly educated Muslims in Europe looking to travel," said Mr Saad. "My target is that one day, we can list every country in the world. And if you are really keen on travelling within a halal environment, our website is a good start."
Zaibun Nisa Butt, a 35-year-old mother of three from Abu Dhabi, said new tools could mean more adventurous holidays for her family. "It would make the whole process easier and means you can still mingle with others in non-Muslim countries," she said. "I would be much more comfortable. You don't tend to find halal hotels much. If you try to keep everything all-Muslim, you end up feeling like you are in a bubble."
The UAE's own halal market is already fairly developed, but officials say they are working on ideas to attract more Muslim tourists. "Although often referred to as a niche product, the potential is obvious," said Lawrence Franklin, policy director at the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. Sectors of the industry from accommodation to travel agencies are actively responding. In Abu Dhabi, the Hala Arjaan by Rotana and the Khalidiya Palace Rayhaan city resort are considered halal. Rotana plans to launch the alcohol-free Hili Rayhaan in Al Ain by the end of this year. In Dubai, there are 87 alcohol-free hotels.
Mohamed al Noman, director of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority, said demand for Islamic hotels was increasing rapidly. "The Islamic values of honesty, courtesy and hospitality touch all aspects of life, and charm visitors during their stay." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org