Why you should care
Because whichever god you worship, you want what you want when you’re on the road.
Ahead of a recent trip to Hong Kong, a Jakarta-based man went online to plan. He wasn’t just shopping for a hotel or cheap flights — he also needed to figure out where to find halal food and a convenient place to pray regularly. “The hardest can get when you travel to places where there are no Muslims around,” explains Reza Ninditha, 38, who adds that for him, the internet is the answer.
With a large, young population, the 1.8 billion Muslims around the world are a crucial market for the travel and leisure industry — nowhere more than Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, and sixth-largest market, valued at some $7.5 billion. Total spending on travel by the Muslim community in 2013 was $140 billion, an almost 8 percent increase year over year — that’s 12 percent of overall global travel spending, according to the latest report from Thomson Reuters. “The Muslim population is probably one of the fastest-growing populations out there,” says Fazal Bahardeen, founder of 7-year-old travel firm CrescentRating. In countries like Indonesia with a large Muslim population, those keen to stick with Islamic tradition generally have their needs met, but pious Muslims traveling overseas mostly have had to wing it.
It’s not a signal of creeping conservatism, but simply a question of convenience for the customer and profit for the service provider.
There is increasing awareness of what the growing middle class of Islamic travelers need, in terms of diet and places to pray. And businesses are innovating to attract them — call it “the halal travel industry.” One popular website, HalalTrip.com, has popped up to offer Muslim consumers everything from halal restaurants to a booking service for Muslim-friendly hotels, and a prayer guide that calculates the correct time for those in transit to pray according to their flight path. HalalTrip’s app has been downloaded more than 200,000 times, and the group as a whole has seen revenues grow threefold in 2015, according to Bahardeen. Ogilvy Noor, which claims to be the world’s first Islamic marketing agency, segments Muslim consumers into several types. It says the “futurists” — proud, tech-savvy Muslims who are educated and well-traveled — are the main force behind halal travel.
Forget the numbers for a second. Any visitor to Indonesia can actually see this trend. A growing number of Muslim women wear the veil, many now say they fast during the holy month and some regions across the archipelago have introduced Sharia-inspired laws. But halal travel is not necessarily about Islam. Indonesia experts like Elizabeth Pisani, author of Indonesia, Etc., point out that increasing displays of piety are simply that: a display. And Indonesia is not in the midst of some swing to conservatism. Take the example of new conservative laws in places like West Sumatra and East Java — far beyond the anomalous Aceh region, which was granted broader autonomy and is known for its strict Sharia laws. Michael Buehler, an academic at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, explains that many of the new regulations, which ban liquor and enforce Quran reading classes for children, are actually rooted in politics rather than piety. Local politicians may be appeasing powerful Islamic groups or enjoying revenue from the premiums local people end up paying for bootleg booze, or in fines for breaking the regulations.
In much the same way, those tapping into the new market for Muslim-friendly travel emphasize that it’s not a signal of creeping conservatism, but simply a question of convenience for the customer and profit for the service provider. The chairman of the Sharia-certified Sofyan Hotel in Jakarta, Riyanto Sofyan, insists he retrofitted his hotel to achieve Sharia certification simply because it made good business sense. The hotel hosted one of Jakarta’s most popular nightclubs in its basement until 1998. A year after the club was shut down, Sofyan says, sales increased almost 20 percent — not only because more families and businessmen were drawn to the quieter atmosphere, but also because food and beverage sales rose thanks to a growing number of conferences on the premises. The aim, apparently, is simply to be a “family-friendly” hotel. The televisions show a restricted range of channels (MTV, for example, doesn’t make the cut), the rooms are kitted out with prayer mats and couples must provide documentation that they are married. But the hotel is open to those of all faiths.
“Islam is inclusive,” Sofyan says. “We are welcoming everyone as long as they are not doing forbidden things inside the hotel.”