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Halal Tourism: Unravelling the Opportunities & Challenges

There are so many descriptions and understanding to the term ‘Halal Travel’ but with just one focus providing a Muslim traveller ‘faith-based needs’ Charmaine Fernz explores this new trending concept which is gaining momentum, its potential and growth opportunities….

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‘Halal’ means permissible according to rules of Islam. It is most frequently referred to in regards to food, but it includes any type of action permissible in Islam. Going by the literal meaning of the word, the sheer meaning of ‘Halal Travel’ is travelling for leisure coupled with faith-based needs. However, as a travel publication we would not want to delve into religious intricacies and keeping it simple, we will talk about the on-going trend that has emerged in the last decade and the hidden potential which is waiting to be explored.

Statistics state that the world’s Muslim population spent US$151 billion on travel in 2015 (excluding Hajj and Umrah), representing some 11% of a global tourism market worth US$1.3 trillion. Its value is expected to increase to US$243 billion by 2021, according to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2016/17 by Thomson Reuters and DinarStandard. This report further states that Muslim travellers were second only to Chinese travellers, who spent US$168 billion in 2015, and ahead of US travellers, who spent US$147 billion that same year. Even further, regional trends reveal Muslim tourism expenditure was highest in the GCC at US$54 billion followed by rest of Middle East and North Africa at US$26 billion.

The Global Muslim Travel Index 2017 by Mastercard and Cresentrating estimated that in 2016 there were 121 million Muslim international travellers. This is projected to grow to 156 million by 2020, where travel expenditure by Muslim travellers is expected to reach US$ 220 billion. It is also projected that the total Muslim travel expenditure will reach US$ 300 billion by 2026. Just going by the exponential figures, this new tourism trend is here to stay and will only grow bigger and better.

Decoding the concept

“There is a common misconception that Muslim tourist prefer pilgrimages or religious tours. In reality, Muslim tourist go for regular tours such as beach holidays, but they just want access to their basic religious needs” – Enver Cebi, COO of HalalBooking.com

With such huge potential, the term unfortunately has been used very loosely across the tourism industry. For many a travel player, there is a misconception that just offering ‘Halal food’ makes a tourism entity ‘Halal Friendly’. As Enver Cebi, COO of HalalBooking.com explains: The concept has been used as a ‘term’ by all industry player without proper understanding and adoptability. This multi-billion market is growing year-on-year but there is a common misconception that Muslim tourism is all about people going to do Muslim-things like pilgrimages, religious tours etc while Halal tourism is nothing of this. In reality, Muslim travellers go for regular holidays but are just concerned that their basic religious needs are met.”

Explaining the concept even further Fazal Bahardeen, CEO of Cresentrating says: “When we started off as a company around seven to eight years ago, we wanted to demystify the halal-travel market. In doing so, we came up with six most important faith-based needs of a Muslim traveller, which was further sub-divided into three areas – Strictly practising Muslims, practising Muslims, Less practising Muslims.”

The six faith-based needs are:

Need to Have: 

  • Halal food
  • Prayer facilities

Both the above factors were essential if any tourism or hospitality player wanted to attract Muslim tourist to their facility or destination.

Good to Have: 

  • Water usage friendly toilets
  • Ramadan services and facilities

Nice to have

  • No non-halal activities i.e. non-alcoholic hotels, no discotheques or casinos
  • Recreational facilities with privacy i.e. separate changing rooms or swimming pools for women

Having plainly described the needs, the Muslim travellers vary from person to person; while one may want all six; some would want just one or two factors on their holiday.

“Everyone has a different definition of Halal travel. It would be better to term the trend, Muslim-accessible travel rather than Halal-friendly. To cite an example: one can travel to Europe and none of them would be considered Halal-friendly destinations as they would be open to one and all. We would rather look at a destination like Japan which has focussed on the halal market, identified a need and done so much work in the last two to three years in this segment. They have actually put into practice theoretical strategies for restaurant and hotels and embraced it completely,” says Serendipity Tailormade founder Nabeel Shariff.

The Halal Essentials

“As a Muslim traveller, the two main facilities being looked for and are of utmost importance is Halal food and prayer facilities” – Fazal Bahardeen, CEO, Cresentrating

With a factual understanding of the concept, travel providers looking to tap into this segment also understand the growing Muslim population. This is the fastest growing religious segment in the world. As per the GMTI report, the Muslim population is expected to make up 26% of the world’s population by 2030.

As Shariff describes: “Food is a big factor in Halal travel. It is also a big factor for Muslim travellers to decide their holiday option based on availability of halal food. As a company, we also prefer to work with resorts that grow their food organically such as the Six Senses resorts. Some of their food is organically sourced be it making their own goats milk or rearing their own chicken farms. This is important for an authentic dining experiences during travel.”

Another areas of focus for Serendipity Tailormade is going beyond just sourcing Halal food to putting the spotlight on Tayyib, which in literal translation is good/clean/wholesome. It is commonly used by Muslims to refer to food, but often that of a higher quality or purity, such as organic or even simply healthy food. Thus, food can be Halal (made of permissible ingredients) but not Tayyib. “We look at Halal travel as ethical travel as it is all about the experience. We have different kinds of Muslims, some of them are uber conservative or uber liberal but we sit in the centre right in terms of our approach. We look at the fundamentals – halal food, alcohol free rooms, privacy, family friendliness, we do not promote places that have casinos. These factors are important in how we design our products. Presently, we offer around 30 destinations worldwide and they are all a bit unusual,” adds Shariff.

Ultimately, Halal travel is all about all about the experience. The main factors any tourism players needs to focus on are the following:

Halal Food – This is by far the most important service that a Muslim traveller looks out for when traveling. Acceptability of different levels of Halal food assurance varies among Muslims.

Prayer Facilities – It is one of the central elements of Islamic practice and worship and second of the five pillars of Islam. While traveling, some of them will combine some prayers and perform them three times a day. In order to cater to this need, services and facilities that are frequented by Muslim travelers need to be equipped with prayer rooms.

Wudhu – Another important consideration is the cleansing ritual. Wudhu is performed before a Muslim performs their prayers. This requires the prayer rooms to have ‘foot washing’ facilities.

Water-Friendly Washrooms – For Muslims, water plays a key role in purity and cleanliness, both of which are core aspects of the faith. Physical cleanliness is stressed as an essential component of being a Muslim. As such, special attention is given to hygiene in the washroom. This entails the use of water in the toilets, and it is discomforting for Muslim travellers where setup for water use is not available. Thus it is important to provide facilities such as hand showers, bidets or even Japanese-style toilets.

Ramadan Services – Although Muslims are less likely to travel during the month of Ramadan, there are still many looking to spend this time away from home, especially, if this period coincides with school holidays. In addition, an increasing number of Muslims take holiday breaks during the two Muslim festivals. Destinations looking to attract Muslim travellers during this period need to be able to accommodate their special needs during the month of fasting. One such example is the catering of Suhoor and Iftar halal meals by hotels.

No Non-Halal Activities – Muslims consider some activities to be ‘Haram’ or non-Halal. When it comes to traveling, these are generally centred on requiring a family-friendly environment. As such, some Muslims would prefer to avoid facilities that serve alcohol, have discotheques or is adjacent to a gambling resort.

Recreational Facilities and Services with Privacy – A sub-segment of Muslim travellers are also looking for recreational facilities that provide privacy for males and females. These include swimming pools and gyms that provide privacy for male and female use and beaches that provide areas for males and females to enjoy in privacy.

Industry Adaptation

“Everyone has a different definition of Halal travel. There is not one company that has a clear definition of the concept” – Nabeel Shariff, founder, Serendipity Tailormade

Having understood the key essentials of targeting a Muslim traveller, we now explore how much of the industry players have adapted to this new rising trend.

As Bahardeen explains: When we started Cresentrating in Singapore, all we wanted to do was rate hotels on how Muslim friendly they were and then expanded this focus into many more segments and services. In the year 2008, although there were Muslims travelling, there was no clear definition of this market. However, in the 12-24 months, there has been a huge focus on this segment by travel service providers and destinations who have certainly understood its potential which cannot be ignored. We first took the hospitality segment and when we classified the hotel, it would be based on if they provide Halal food? How do they prepare the food? If they do not have Halal food in the hotel, is it available in the vicinity? Are they able to do home service? Based on fulfilment of the above criteria, we rate hotels on a scale of 1-7. We also rate hotels on a scale of 1-5 on the ‘Need to Have’ and ‘Good to Have’ criteria; While 6 and 7 are only used to rate hotels which have the ‘Nice to Have’ facilities. Based on our research, we have also noticed that the hospitality industry outside of Muslim countries are still doing the catch up act with regards to catering to Muslim travellers, while the restaurant segment has developed substantially in this segment.”

Another focus area according to Bahardeen are airports where a traveller spends a lot of time. As a Muslim traveller, they are looking for two key facilities Halal food and prayer facilities. Airlines do focus on this segment and offer Halal meals to travellers. While, trains and eateries on highways between big cities are gearing up too. Attractions in key cities apart from Muslim countries need to also focus on this segment and so do shopping malls.

Expressing her sentiments on similar lines Maggie Bootsman, UAE Manager, Travel Counsellors, says: “As a company, we have five travel counsellors who are also Muslim to understand the needs of this segment. To further ensure that we are delivering the right product, we asked all of our DMC partners what kind of products be it Halal or not Halal do they have that would suit the Muslim or Halal market? It is surprising that many of them were never asked this question. We have also ensured that our suppliers in terms of destinations are aware of the needs of the Halal travellers. We also have a team-member who will be working on accessible and halal-friendly travel. We are conscious of the fact that Halal tourism is the fastest growing sector so we are ensuring that we walk the talk.”

Key Destinations

Based on our interactions with the industry, it was unanimous that the below are destinations which are going all out to target or cater for the Muslim traveller.

Turkey

Turkey fits the bill in terms of all the facilities it offers to make the destination Muslim-friendly. This has nothing to do with bureaucracy but purely on supply and demand. As per Cebi, “It was the demand that created such supply. This goes back to end of the 90s when the local tourist market was estimated at around 18-20 million travellers. They consisted of conservative families who were looking for a beach holiday with some facilities like Halal food and dedicated facilities for ladies. This demand was recognised around the early 2000, when some five or six properties focused on this segment. However, this trend just mushroomed and today we have around 100 such properties in Turkey. In terms of numbers, for an average hotel of around 200-300 rooms, Halalbooking.com as a company provides a million Euro sale per annum. There are some five-star halal Turkish resorts in the likes of Angel’s Marmaris, Adin Beach Hotel and Adenya Beach Resort which have just the right facilities for Muslim travellers. They are also not much preferred by western visitors because they only serve halal food, serve no alcohol and have segregated facilities for women to swim in women-only pools.

Malaysia

The destination being a Muslim country offers halal cuisines ranging from local to western including prayer facilities. In addition, travellers can also find Islamic events and festivals, Islamic tourism attractions, attractive Islamic related studies for edu-tourism among the many other facilities. It is also Malaysia’s matured Halal industry which is one of the main pull factors for Muslim tourists. The Ministry of Tourism and Culture has set up an Islamic Tourism Centre (ITC) to work hand in hand with Tourism Malaysia to promote Discover Malaysia: Your Muslim-Friendly Destination. The authority is also promoting ‘Shariah-compliance’ to the hotel and restaurant premises in Malaysia. In addition, for a hotel kitchen to be certified Halal, the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM) has determined that a hotel kitchen must have a Halal Executive, whereby the person must be a Malaysian citizen that has an Islamic educational background or obtains a Halal Executive certificate or a certificate from a food handling course. The Department of Standards Malaysia (Standards Malaysia), the national standards and accreditation body under the Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation (MOSTI) and Islamic Tourism Centre (ITC), an agency under the Ministry of Tourism & Culture (MOTAC) are collaborating to organise the inaugural ‘Islamic Tourism Masterclass – Muslim Friendly Hospitality Services Standard’, an industry capacity building programme to promote the use and adoptability of the first Islamic tourism standard in the world.

With all these factors, the country welcomes an average of 5.5 million Muslims tourists yearly. Approximately about 20% of total arrivals to Malaysia. Since 2000, the number of Muslim tourists to Malaysia increased from 1.3 mn to 5.5 mn in 2014.

Some of the facilities offered by hotels in Malaysia include Qibla signage, halal certification for the kitchen, a dedicated prayer room. Delving deeper, some hotels also have bidets in the toilets, Quran in the rooms, Muslim prayer schedules, halal restaurants (i.e. no alcohol sales) and shuttle to the nearest mosque for Friday prayer. Interestingly, based on a study on the readiness of Malaysian accommodation towards Shariah-compliance – 8.7% of hotels had full Shariah compliance and 52.2% are partially compliant with Shariah requirements.

Japan

The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) has accelerated promotion for the Muslim market. For example, JNTO has invited Muslim travel agents to promote Muslim tour packages to Japan. As a destination, Japan has jumped from eighth to sixth on the list of non-OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) destinations in the ‘Global Muslim Travel Index (GMTI) 2017’ by MasterCard & Crescent Rating. There is a ‘Japan Welcome Guide for Muslim Visitors’, which is available in English and Bahasa Indonesia, covering useful and practical information on mosques, hotels, restaurants and other Muslim-friendly facilities across Japan. In addition, Japan Tourism Agency, under Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), Japan, has had a policy to support local areas that invest in Muslim friendly equipment and services for years. This has resulted in an increase of Muslim friendly facilities such as hotels and restaurants in Japan. More and more seminars and workshops are being held in Japan, even in local cities, to enhance the proper understanding of Muslim travellers’ interests and needs.

South Korea

South Korea has taken the necessary steps to diversify its tourism industry and make Muslims feel at home in the country. Over 900,000 Muslim tourists visited the country in 2015, up by 20% from 2014 which was at 750,000. Some of the initiatives conducted to tap into the Muslim traveller segment include Halal Restaurant Week, an annual event to promote Muslim-friendly restaurants not only for Muslims but also for tourists globally. This event will be held for the second time from September to October 2017, hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization and will attract more than 100 Muslim-friendly restaurants around the country. There are currently about 130 Muslim-friendly restaurants, including 14 halal-certified ones, in South Korea and the figure is expected to grow. The country also provides Muslim-friendly restaurants guides and tourist maps which are available in English.

Recent news reports also state that the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) aims to attract one million Muslim tourists in 2017 in an effort to diversify its inbound tourism market. Under the initiative, the KTO will establish more Muslim-friendly facilities and hold various events throughout the year, as part of its Muslim-Friendly Korea project. KTO will also introduce a system at some 140 restaurants for evaluating their suitability to Muslim visitors. The system is divided with five categories from Halal Certified, self-certified, Muslim-friendly, Muslim-welcome and Pork-Free. The KTO will also provide leaflets and mobile applications carrying information about Muslim-friendly restaurants in Arabic.

Australia

Tourism Australia is specifically targeting Muslim tourists with the visitor guide titled ‘Explore Australia from Unique Wildlife to Urban Wonders’ which enhances their travel experience in the destination. This is a 68-page guidebook which completely focuses and helps Muslim travellers in discovering the best places to visit, shop, dine and pray in Australia. To make more and more Muslim travellers aware, the guide has been distributed amongst travel agents and partners in the region. The guide highlights the nearest mosques and places to pray within each state and a list of the best Halal dining experiences including Turkish, South Asian and Middle-Eastern influences which have been rated by Crescent Rating. The travel guide is also available on www.australia.com, and can be downloaded from our partner’s site www.halaltrip.com/downloadable-halal-travel-guides/

The Way Ahead

The concept of Halal travel though a strong growing trend is yet to touch so many more destinations. Our story encapsulates just a couple of factors as the degree of Halal travel varies from person to person. The focus also depends from market to market and destination to destination. Ultimately, tourism facilities need to understand that a Muslim traveller is like any other regular traveller just looking to meet their religious needs.

As Bahardeen concludes: “If a destinations or attraction wants to target the Muslim traveller – they have to focus on some essentials – primarily it is education which is of paramount importance. Tourism authorities have to continuously educate travel players on essentials of the Muslim market. This will also include workshops and training for staff.”

Finally, before we conclude, we cannot escape the biggest trend in this segment which are the Millennial and their growing influence. As per statistics, approximately 55% of Muslims today are under the age of 30 years. Going by sheer numbers, if we have to rewind five to six years ago people travelled as families but today, the travel scene has changed with the emergence of Millennial, who are looking for more experiential travel.