During Ramadan, stories went viral on social media of efforts by companies to cater to Muslim travellers’ fasting schedules. The Ibis Hotel in Dublin, for instance, was praised for arranging a full breakfast buffet for a guest to eat at 2:30am before beginning the day’s fast, and an Air India flight attendant rustled up extra sandwiches for a passenger who requested a bottle of water to break his fast.
But these instances aren’t just one-off, heartwarming anecdotes that make excellent fodder for retweets and likes. Hospitality businesses and tourism boards around the world have been eyeing the 1.8 billion-strong Muslim market, and halal travel, as it’s been dubbed, is now one of the hottest tourism sectors.
According to the 2019 Mastercard-CrescentRating Halal Travel Frontier report, global Muslim visitor arrivals grew from 121 million in 2016 to 131 million in 2017; by 2020, numbers are predicted to rise to 156 million, accounting for 10 percent of the global travel segment. The key concerns for these travellers tend to be access to convenient prayer facilities throughout a day’s sightseeing, being able to enjoy halal-approved local cuisine and feeling safe and welcome as a Muslim.
‘Halal tourism is an organic response from today’s Muslims to the heightened social and political tensions of the day,’ says Shahed Amanullah, founder of Zabihah, an app that locates halal food around the world. ‘It helps Muslims find their own spaces in this world, reinforce their identities and recharge.’
While Muslim countries like the UAE, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia are popular – and easy – standbys, Muslim travellers are increasingly casting their net wide, with Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, the UK, South Africa and Spain all hot favourites. In response, attractions, hotels and tourism boards are rethinking their offerings to actively court this booming demographic.
Consider that Hong Kong’s Disneyland has become the first to offer halal-certified restaurants (guests to the other magical kingdoms must request halal meals in advance); the Korea Tourism Association hosts an annual Halal Restaurant Week; the Tourism Authority of Thailand created the Thailand Muslim Friendly app, which lets users search for halal-friendly businesses and prayer spaces around the country; and Cape Town Tourism has begun packaging its existing infrastructure to attract Muslim travellers from across the diaspora.
‘Cape Town has one million Muslims – one fourth of the population – 100 mosques, and at least 20 religious shrines around the city,’ says Cape Town Tourism chief executive Enver Duminy. ‘We have a long history.’
Digital Resources for Muslims on the Go
As more and more Muslims hit the road, they can take advantage of a growing variety of websites and apps. Amanullah’s Zabihah.com was a pioneer; for more than two decades it has catalogued more than 20,000 halal and halal-friendly restaurants and grocery shops all over the world, complete with crowd-sourced reviews. It’s a great starting point for travellers who want to eat halal food but still experience local cuisine – as opposed to sticking to Arab or Indian restaurants that are usually the more obvious halal options.
Similar apps with a regional focus include Australia’s Halal Advisor and Halal Navi in Japan. The Halal Trip app goes beyond food coverage to give users guidance on prayer times and the correct prayer direction.
Blogs like Muslim Travelers, Passport & Plates, Have Halal Will Travel, Halal Travel Guide, Muslim Travel Girl and Hijabi Globetrotter all provide detailed destination guides from a Muslim perspective and some are expanding their services. Have Halal Will Travel has introduced a Travel Planner app; Halal Travel Guide leads guided tours in Bosnia and Uzbekistan. The choice of destinations is telling as both countries have rich Islamic heritage.
Muslims looking to connect with the many iterations of their culture can also turn to Malaysia-based Tripfez, which offers package tours of Langkawi, the Maldives, Spain and Perth (as well as a range of Umrah trips to Mecca). The global leader in Muslim holiday planning, UK-based HalalBooking.com, has even greater reach, covering more than 45 countries worldwide. It’s like an ultra-focused Expedia with fully tailored halal travel options and expects to reach a US$1 billion (HK7.8 billion) valuation by 2020.
Also in 2020, according to the Mastercard-CrescentRating Global Muslim Travel Index, Muslim travelers will be shelling out US$220 billion (HK$1.7 trillion) around the world. That means catering to this growing segment isn’t just about scoring social media points – it makes good business sense.