Why you should care
It turns out Muslim travelers are looking for the same things that all travelers are seeking, so long as they can practice a Muslim lifestyle.
For most global travelers, probably the biggest concern is finding a hotel room with a nice view and a fabulous restaurant, and maybe a bar and a beach. But for a growing number of tourists, like Hasan Ali, a 35-year-old from Kazakstan, there are other issues: a place to pray, unisex swimming facilities and alcohol-free minibars.
“It is nice to be able to enjoy nature without having to constantly see naked women walking around,” he says, talking about his last family trip to Turkey. He’s now looking forward to taking his family to halal-friendly facilities in southern Spain. As a practicing Muslim, he says it can be “trying to feel like you have to compromise your principles when you travel.”
Muslim-friendly tourism may be one of the faster-growing sectors of travel these days, as an industry that once forced a one-size-fits-all approach to customer service sees the opportunities in segmenting itself more. In this case, the move can be a game changer for a group whose ability to travel widely and maintain its customs has been limited. The first Muslim-friendly tourism sector emerged in Turkey 15 years ago, but now Muslims can be catered to as far away as Malaysia and Indonesia. And while Europe is getting a growing piece of the action, the U.S. continues to miss out.
Nobody wants to keep going back to Turkey … . Places like the south of Spain, … with a strong Muslim heritage, are very appealing.
Fazal Bahardeen, CEO of CrescentRating
Globally, halal tourists in 2012 spent an estimated $137 billion, which constitutes about 12.5 percent of the total global tourism expenditure, according to CrescentRating, a Singapore-based service company for Muslim travel, in what appears to be the first worldwide survey of its kind. Everyone in the industry says it’s growing fast. Muslim holidaymakers can make attractive guests because many come from wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the UAE, so penniless backpackers are the exception. Unlike other groups, about half of halal travelers bring families, while the rest are mostly traveling for business. What do they look for? About a dozen halal requirements varying in importance from indispensable to just nice to have. Halal food is a fundamental. Close behind are not serving alcohol and providing private pools for women and families. Having a space to pray, or something indicating the direction of prayer inside the room, is also appreciated.
The first European nation to embrace halal-conscious travelers was Bosnia-Herzegovina, where close to half the population is Muslim. But now Western European countries like France, Spain and the U.K. have joined the race to capture this wealthy, mobile market. They might be a little late to the pork-free party, but novelty sells in the travel sector. “Nobody wants to keep going back to Turkey year after year,” explains Fazal Bahardeen, CEO of CrescentRating, which helps companies connect with the Muslim leisure market and whose team of auditors has accredited more than 500 businesses as halal-friendly. “Places like the south of Spain, for example, with a strong Muslim heritage, are very appealing.”
The most-sought-after destinations in Europe are France, followed by England and Italy sharing second place, even though some countries struggle with accommodating Muslims in their own society. In France, for example, wearing a full-face veil in public is illegal, the Swiss famously voted to ban the construction of minarets, and Islamophobia is on the rise in Germany.
Crescent rates the U.K. as Europe’s most halal-friendly destination, mostly due to the multicultural nature of London, where finding halal food is easy. Hotels are just now starting to catch up with large chains like U.K.-based Millennium & Copthorne Hotels, which offers halal food in many of its European locations. Despite some halal-friendly luxury hotels in places like Rome, Italy is down the ranks. Beachgoers’ favorite so far is the island of Gozo, in Malta, where they can rent a private villa. Meanwhile, Germany and Switzerland are the chosen destinations for business or medical trips. In France — the Western European country with the biggest Muslim minority — the push for halal is taking place mainly in small hotels, like Roche Tinard, a 17th-century castle-turned-guesthouse in the northwest.
But wherever the trend is growing, the obvious question, of course, is how do all these facilities manage to blend with non-Muslim visitors? Won’t they feel excluded? “This is really about bringing people together, not separating them,” says Ignacio Giménez, sales manager at the Spanish Alanda Hotel Marbella. It’s a nice idea, but the hotel doesn’t advertise halal-friendly practices on its website, and some guests have expressed surprise and disappointment on the travel site TripAdvisor about the lack of alcohol. Giménez says the hotel won’t object if guests take wine to their rooms.